Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

Catering for the best

December 15, 2014

I bet you didn’t know there is a university caterers’ organisation called TUCO (a great acronym for those of us who are Breaking Bad fans – one of the most extraordinary and mindlessly violent characters was called Tuco). Well, there is. Actually, this doesn’t surprise me; the only thing that surprises me is that, until a few days ago, I had never heard of it. Because catering is right at the heart of people’s university experience.

For myself, I remember very little about the quality and quantity of food I ate as a student; somehow the food wasn’t as important as other things, including drink. However, what I do remember is that food, or catering, were issues which once they were raised were guaranteed to produce heated argument, and with a bit of luck militant confrontation with the university authorities. And some of the causes were odd: on one occasion (in 1975 I think) we were willing to go to the wall in defence of the continued availability of burgers, beans and chips in the student cafeteria, a particular offering of food that should have been banned on health grounds rather than protected through militant action. A few years later, when I was a lecturer, I recall being at a general meeting at the university in which senior officers were having to announce a whole series of cuts because of dramatic reductions in government funding; in the discussion that followed the student representatives demanded to know (as their only question) what the impact would be on catering.

We shouldn’t laugh. Food is important, from the necessary provision of nutrition to the social networking that often happens when we eat. If we believe (as I do) that university is about more than classroom learning, or indeed classroom teaching, then we should aim to make eating on the campus a positive experience. Much of that is to do with providing choice and quality, and making it as affordable as is possible. But universities need to realise that catering is not an unimportant sideshow, and that presentation can be as important as the actual food substance. Overall, what can be more important than the experiences of the senses when encountering food, in stimulating company?

What is required therefore is a catering operation that values and is excited by food and understands its significance in building a scholarly community.

To ‘Brexit’ or not to ‘Brexit’

December 11, 2014

Guest post is by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee

Britain’s conflicting relationship with the European Union is nothing new; however over the past few months the prospect of ‘Brexit’ – shorthand for British exit from the EU – has become an increasingly realistic possibility. Cataclysmic change might be a longue durée historical process, and yet sometimes the unthinkable turns into the inevitable at such a fast pace that one is left with a sense of incredulity mixed with self-reproach and impotence. However, it is exactly at times like this that the case must be put with the greatest decisiveness: Britain’s place is in the EU.

One has to acknowledge of course that the EU has been a source of frustration even for those most favourably disposed towards it – and I’m not alluding to a certain unhealthy interest in the shape of cucumbers, or a more justifiable interference with our household appliances. The EU has long been perceived as a detached and bureaucratic entity whose inner workings are based on treaties (see the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) signed when the internet had not yet changed the world. For national governments to divert internal political disquiet towards EU inefficiencies was an open goal not to be missed. This is clearly the case with immigration at times of economic difficulties. In terms of popular support, the political drive to leave the EU is largely based on stirring up public concerns about immigrants abusing social benefits, ‘swamping the country’ and driving down wages. Over the past year we have witnessed an escalation of UK government’s rhetoric, from the disgraceful ‘returns’ pilot scheme for illegal immigrants, to threats of curbing freedom of movement within the EU.

On the face of it one might have expected a formidable reaction on the part of UK universities, one which would have explained to the general public the reasons why the European project and immigration are in the nation’s best interests. Unfortunately universities, somewhat weakened by the efforts to justify their own existence in a context of fierce (inter)national competition, have responded by taking the balance sheet approach alone. They have correctly pointed out that the immigration crackdown could badly affect the international student vibrant market. The President of Universities UK and members of the Universities UK board have written an open letter published in The Times – a 194 word reminder that ‘universities are national assets which contribute £73 billion to the economy’. Similar economic arguments have been further expanded in the Universities UK blog. Most recently a study by UCL migration economists Dustmann and Frattini (ironically non-British themselves), which concluded that between 2001 and 2011 EU migrants made a net positive contribution of £20bn was negatively reported in the media.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the universities’ reaction has been typical of the way the EU is seen from London (the perspective is slightly different from Scotland), where few understand the driving force behind ‘Europe’ and most think only in terms of free trade and practical, commercial results. No letter to The Times (such a quintessentially British, ‘olden days’ manner to address a 21st century problem) can fix this; what is required is a reminder of the ideal value of transnational knowledge, such as the excellent work carried out at CERN, the recent landing of a European spacecraft on a comet, and the framework that allows thousands of students on the Erasmus programme to acquire memories and experiences which last a lifetime. Universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone; the economic evidence is not sufficient, they should be tapping into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity. The risks of pulling out of Europe are far greater than establishing a ‘relationship with Brussels on the same level as Botswana’s'; rather Brexit would be a sad example of cognitive dissonance for a country proudly keen to remember the sacrifice of the fallen in the two world wars.

For all its faults in its current form, the ‘European project’ stems from a desire for reconciliation between European nations, shaped and defended by people from very different backgrounds who had experienced the horrors of nationalism. What we are confronted with in Europe today is no military war of course, but a resurgence of nationalist sentiments and emotions (see Marine Le Pen’s defence of the nation state in this recent interview, or UKIP’s ‘Little England’ pronouncements. This is a battle of ideas and it is incumbent upon universities to expose past delusions as well as the pitfalls of new ideological siren songs.

What kind of graduates do we need?

December 2, 2014

I was at a discussion forum a while ago, and one of the topics was whether our universities were producing ‘the right graduates’; by which was meant graduates with qualifications for which there is a national need. Of course this is a loaded question, because it starts with the assumption that ‘national needs’ of this kind can be successfully identified, and that therefore there is such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ graduate.

I would suggest that there are three possible perspectives on this. The first is that the ‘right’ graduates are those who have graduated from the courses they wanted to study, regardless of whether these are priority subjects in anyone else’s perspective, including that of the government. The second is the opposite, that there is a legitimate public interest in ensuring that we have a viable flow of graduates who have acquired skills for which a need has been identified. The third might lie somewhere in between, with a mix of free choice qualified by availability, where the latter is driven by national priorities.

The problem right now is that, for the most part, we have none of these. It would be hard to say that there is free choice for students, because in exercising their choices they may often have been influenced or put under pressure by others (including parents). On the other hand we don’t have state control either. You might think that we actually have the third ‘middle way’ model, but we don’t. What restricts free choice is not national priorities, but rather the artificial distortions of higher education funding mixed with the vagaries of university recruitment and selection mechanisms.

It seems to me that there are some general things to be said about the ‘right’ graduates. Some might argue that those who have secured very good university examination results can become the ‘right’ graduate in almost any field. In addition, any graduate who has acquired transferable skills that will support economic and social development is a ‘right’ graduate, even if the course they took is considered irrelevant to the business sector the graduate is now pursuing.

On the other hand, it could be argued that higher education has a crucial role in securing a better distribution of specific skills and qualifications in the interests of the country. In Scotland’s case, and in particular in the circumstances of North-East Scotland, there is a constant debate about the extent to which the education system is producing enough graduates with skills in areas such as petroleum engineering or subsea geology, in order to plug the skills gap in the oil and gas industry. Should this determine the availability of student places? Or if not, should funding agencies and universities just ignore labour market requirements?

So ultimately the big question here is to what extent it is possible to persuade or convince students to consider courses for which a national need has been identified. Or should we should just let them go for whatever they want to do? Or else, should we perhaps contemplate a system where undergraduate programmes and modules follow a liberal arts model, and that specialisation (whether at the discretion of the student or with some other guidance) is reserved for postgraduate programmes and research?

I fear that we are groping around in this territory because we do not at this point have a consensus view of the purpose of higher education. Do we want higher education programmes to satisfy national skills needs in a more directed way, or do we want them simply to offer whatever it is the students want? Or maybe it is appropriate for different institutions, or perhaps even different parts of the same institution, to view this question differently. Indeed the real lesson for us may be that this kind of question does not have a right answer.

Higher education investment and the role of the state

November 25, 2014

A few days ago several thousand people took to the streets of London to protest against higher education cuts, tuition fees and student debt. The protestors carried placards and heard speeches that called for free higher education, the end of student debt and progressive taxation. It is unlikely that their cocktail of complaints and demands will be taken on board, at least in its entirety, by any political party seriously aiming for government in Westminster, but it is clear also that there is a fair amount of unrest in student circles in England. But in targeting tuition fees above all else, the protestors may be addressing the wrong priority.

It may be worth saying that the argument for ‘free’ higher education (which is of course not really free, but rather consists of tuition funded by the taxpayer) is not without its difficulties. The financial burden of university studies is not felt evenly by all sections of the population. Students with access to significant private resources will not necessarily be troubled much by tuition fees; but disadvantaged students will always be affected by general living and material expenses even where tuition is free. In other words, wealthier students will notice relatively little difference between having tuition fees and having none, while disadvantaged students will find it challenging to afford even ‘free’ higher education. This is one of the reasons why universal free tuition does not, contrary to what its advocates often assume, necessarily draw poorer students into higher education.

A much more significant factor in the social (and indeed economic) impact of higher education is state investment. Many European countries have tuition fees, though on the whole these are low by English standards. However, such fees supplement (rather than replace) state investment, so that the latter can be effectively targeted at genuine need, whether this is institutional (investment) needs or personal student needs. It is arguable that American universities achieved global prominence once the US government realised that higher education investment would generate massive economic benefits; and now US disinvestment is coming at a time when we can discern a gradual slippage by American universities in global rankings, while aggressive investment by China and others is allowing their institutions to advance. The perfect model of higher education funding is serious public investment, accompanied by affordable tuition fees and targeted support for poorer students.

Some countries seem to have lost a mature understanding of what the state’s role is in higher education funding. This needs to be recovered.

What next for Waterford Institute of Technology?

November 18, 2014

Readers of this blog will know about the problems experienced by Waterford Institute of Technology in its quest to achieve university status. Recently, as was reported here, the Institute decided not to proceed with a merger with Carlow Institute of Technology; a merger of this kind is required by the somewhat bizarre new Irish legislative framework for the awarding of the status of a ‘technological university’. Waterford IT had concluded that the merged institution (if the marriage with Carlow had gone ahead) would actually have reduced its ability to comply with other requirements for university status.

Since then it has been reported that the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ms Jan O’Sullivan, is insisting on the merger and indeed has appointed a former Chair of the Higher Education Authority to mediate. But we have also learned that Waterford Institute will not cooperate with this process and will not go ahead with the merger.

Waterford IT is of course right, and the whole framework for ‘technological universities’ is very questionable. Waterford has a good case to be considered for university status under the old rules of the Universities Act 1997, and that is how the case should be evaluated. There is no basis on which any objective observer could conclude that a Waterford Institute merged with Carlow Institute of Technology has a better case for university status than Waterford has on its own. Carlow IT is not a bad institution, and does some interesting work; but overall it still lacks the activities and indeed the staff that would, at this stage, support university status.

It is time for the Irish authorities to recognise that the higher education ‘landscape’ that has been promoted in recent policy documents doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s time to re-think these plans.

Pedagogy, or just technology?

November 18, 2014

MIT News, the website that publishes news items from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is consistently worth reading, both so as to follow what MIT is up to, and for quick insights into some really interesting topics addressed in the university’s teaching or research.

This does not mean of course that MIT always gets it right. One item on the website recently caught my attention, but its main arguments don’t particularly persuade me. It presents some thoughts on the future of university education by one of its Mechanical Engineering faculty, Professor Sanjay Sarma.

Professor Sarma asks ‘what a college education will look like in 10 years’, and then paints a picture of an IT-dominated experience in which students’ work is (apparently) graded automatically and in which the largely online menu will, for any subject, possibly include video games. This particular vision is explained as focusing on student interaction and participation, but seems on the other hand to offer few settings in which such interaction could play out. Professor Sarma appears to think that MOOCs will be the main influence on future degree courses.

There is absolutely no doubt that new technology will play a big role in higher education in future; and indeed that is a good thing. It is also clear that students will learn differently, and at different times, and at different stages of their lives; also, all good. It is well worth asking whether traditional lectures will still be a key teaching platform – something which I doubt. But I would equally suggest that universities must not abandon the social side of learning, and the building of a student community in which learning comes from student peers as much as from professors. All-round automated processes will not easily produce such environments.

Technology is here to stay, and is a hugely important tool. But it should support, and not replace, real pedagogy.

Higher education legislation: benefit or peril?

November 11, 2014

Shortly after I took up my post in 2011 as Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, I was asked by the Scottish Government to chair a review of higher education governance. At the time a friend remarked to me that this would be a great way to learn fast all about the Scottish system; and a great way also to be hated by everyone within that system. I cannot say whether the latter turned out to be true, but it is certainly the case that recommendations on governance will not always please everyone.

The review that I chaired reported in early 2012, and we summarised the purpose of our work as follows:

‘It is not just a question of assuring the integrity and transparency of processes, it is a question of allowing society to protect its broader investment in education, knowledge and intellectual innovation in a way that makes the most of a long Scottish tradition adapted to the needs of the 21st century world.’

In this spirit we made a number of recommendations for reform that might maintain public confidence in the sector. We suggested that these reforms would be more easily secured through a code of good governance for Scotland, and also with the help of ‘a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management.’

Subsequently the chairs of the governing bodies of Scottish universities adopted a code of good governance which addressed some (but not all) of the review’s recommendations. And now the Scottish Government has initiated a consultation on a proposed Higher Education Governance Bill. This suggests that new legislation may cover six topics that were the subject of recommendations in the higher education review: (i) transferring the role of the Privy Council in approving university governance instruments to a new Scottish committee; (ii) creating a new statutory definition of academic freedom; (iii) clarifying the role of Principals of the universities; (iv) setting out procedures for electing a shortlist of candidates for chairs of governing bodies, and selecting the successful candidate through an election; (v) ensuring that governing bodies include staff, student and alumni representatives; and (vi) clarifying the role and composition of academic boards or Senates.

In bringing forward the proposals, the government has correctly identified those issues set out in the governance review that would require legislation in order to be implemented.  If enacted in the form suggested in the consultation document, the new statute would secure a system of higher education built on institutional autonomy and academic freedom, a system that recognises that universities need to be independent but that they must not be disconnected from wider public views and concerns.

It is already clear that the proposed legislation will not be supported by everyone. Trade unions have welcomed the consultation, but Universities Scotland (representing Principals) has issued a statement suggesting a fair degree of apprehension.

In his Foreword to the consultation document, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, underlined the government’s commitment to institutional autonomy:

‘The Scottish Government does not want to increase Ministerial control over universities, but support them to refine their governance systems, enabling an evolution that can enhance their important contribution to Scotland and the advancement of its people and economy.’

In a modern system of higher education, governments and universities need to balance the important requirement of institutional autonomy with the recognition that institutions also serve a number of public purposes and need to maintain the support of key stakeholders. This is not an easy thing to achieve, and the government’s consultation document will rightly prompt debate. But right now I think that the proposals, together with other instruments such as the code of good governance, have got this balance largely right.


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