Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

Postgraduate studies, a higher calling?

April 14, 2014

One of the curiosities of my university education was that I completed my first postgraduate degree before I completed any undergraduate one. If I were to write about that in any detail, it would be too mind-numbingly boring, so just a very brief explanation: my undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin was a BA in Law. In those days TCD allowed law students to do, concurrently, the LLB (Bachelor of Law), which was technically a postgraduate degree (it’s all different now, by the way).  In fact the LLB course used all the same subjects (today we would say modules) as the BA, so there only real manifestation of doing two degree programmes was two sets of examinations. And that year, the LLB exams took place a few weeks before the BA exams. I told you this was boring.

So I graduated with two degrees at the same time, and stuck them both behind my name with hardly a hint of shame at this maybe rather doubtful practice. A couple of years later I had my PhD, so it didn’t matter much any more.

The LLB of that day was a most confusing thing. It had an undergraduate title but was, at least technically, a postgraduate degree; in that it aped its namesake in Cambridge, or the BCL in Oxford. Its syllabus – well, I’m not sure you could say it had a syllabus, as the BA lectures doubled up for the LLB – was hardly a postgraduate one. And the whole thing was corrected a few years later when the LLB became the primary undergraduate law degree of TCD.

If I had wanted to study law in the United States, it would have been rather different: I would have had to study for an unrelated undergraduate degree first, and then pursued my law studies at a postgraduate level, generally leading to the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which while labelled a doctoral degree is overwhelmingly not considered to be one.

And if I had studied any subject at all in Germany, it would have been hard to say whether what I was doing was undergraduate or postgraduate or some sort of seamless transition between the two.

Perhaps encouraged by the Bologna process, we have begun to look more systematically at this. It is not that we need to be pedantic or bureaucratic about it all, rather we need to have a clear sense of what we are doing pedagogically. We need to understand what standards and methodologies separate the different levels of degree programmes. We may also need to consider the significance (if any) of the different lengths of degree programmes culminating in the same award – some universities in Britain and Ireland have three-year undergraduate degree programmes, and some (including Scottish universities) have four-year ones.

As the framework for postgraduate courses becomes clearer, so they also appear to be gaining in popularity. Numbers taking postgraduate courses have increased very substantially over the past decade or two, and there is now evidence that those graduating with a postgraduate degree find jobs more quickly and more easily. But, apart from research degrees (including PhDs), what are postgraduate courses for? Are they a seamless extension of undergraduate programmes (as they clearly are in some subjects, for example engineering)? Is their purpose to address their subject-matter in a deeper way? Do they represent (as in the United States) a more advanced but also more vocational approach to learning? Are they the new gold standard of employability?

An increasing proportion of university students nowadays are postgraduates. That proportion is almost certain to rise. It is perhaps time to reflect on what the implications are for higher education.

What’s at stake?

April 7, 2014

The term ‘stakeholder’ is one of those words that appears to have suddenly emerged as a key concept of higher education policy. It is not a term, so far as I can remember, that was ever used when I embarked upon my academic career. Now it is ubiquitous in university documentation.

So what does it actually mean? There word ‘stakeholder’ was originally a legal concept referring to a person or body that held money or property pending a determination of who was the rightful owner. It was common for stakeholders to be used in gambling transactions, but in other settings as well. From this original use came the more modern meaning of stakeholder as someone or some body with an interest in the success or otherwise of a person, organisation or business. In the business world it is usually a reference to someone who, while not necessarily being a shareholder or owner, has a legitimate interest in a firm’s success or could be affected by its failure: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors. There is also the concept of a ‘secondary stakeholder’, who is not affected as directly by a firm’s fortunes, but who nevertheless has an interest: the general public, trade unions, community groups, and so forth.

So who are the ‘stakeholders’ of a university? The obvious primary group of stakeholders are students, and of course also staff. The concept may be seen as more complex when it is extended to government, industry (local or otherwise), schools, public agencies. As public policy to an ever greater extent expects universities to engage stakeholders in planning and in strategic communication, it is important to assess how far this community of interested parties could extend, and what entitlements they have. Some studies have suggested that there is a particular triumvirate of stakeholders whose interests should to some extent be accommodated: parents, communities and employers. This, it is suggested, should lead universities to adopt the business tool of ‘business stakeholder analysis’:

‘BSA is a useful tool for learning how to think more expansively about stakeholders, and then actively to incorporate these newly identified stakeholders into the corporate decision-making process without sacrificing institutional values.’

Universities, like other organisations, need to be aware of those bodies and networks that can have an impact on their success. Unlike firms, universities are often seen as public bodies, and this creates not just a sense amongst various groups that they have an interest in the institution, it sometimes generates a sense of entitlement in relation to them. Governments express this through the conditions they attach to the distribution of public money to universities and through the monitoring of performance. But it is felt more widely also: a man once came up to me on the campus (having recognised who I was) and proceeded to deliver a set of instructions as to what I, in his view, was obliged to do. He ended his statement with: ‘I have paid for all this, I am entitled to have my views taken into account.’

And indeed, in many way he was so entitled. Universities should not be resistant to the stakeholder concept; it reinforces a sense of the university as a significant element of the wider community, even if the institution does not have to dance to everyone’s tune. Autonomy should not, in my view, mean disengagement or disinterest. In some ways indeed we are stakeholders for the wider community: we hold the valuable property of knowledge in the interests of the society which, ultimately, owns it.

Academic publishing: escaping the stranglehold?

April 1, 2014

Elsevier BV is a Netherlands company which, according to its website, is a ‘world-leading provider of information solutions’; in other words, it is a publisher. Its main focus is on science and medicine. It publishes 2,900 journals in one format or another, including such well known periodicals as Acta Anaesthesiologica Taiwanica, or the American Journal of Otolaryngology, or the unputdownable Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids. It has published more than 24,000 academic books. So one thing you already know about Elsevier is that it holds the key to publication for many academics, and to access to scholarship for university libraries and their readers.

And it is not cheap. So for example, the seminal book Dacie and Lewis Practical Haematology will, should you decide to buy it, set you back €93. And if you think your library should subscribe to Prostaglandins, you may want to let them know that the electronic version (only) will cost €3,743.33; if you need it in print, that’ll be €4,524.

It would not be fair to single out Elsevier; it is merely doing what companies do in an inadequately competitive market. Academic publishing  is full of such examples; th0ugh not that full, because the number of really significant publishers is not a large one. And as universities across the worlds try to prioritise their expenditure, library subscriptions and purchases have become more and more unaffordable.

And yet, universities have not seriously resisted the exploitation by publishers, beyond agitated discussions. However, now a German university, the University of Konstanz, has told Elsevier that the university ‘will no longer keep up with this aggressive pricing policy and will not support such an approach’. More precisely, it has decided to discontinue the existing licensing arrangement, and to tell academics that they will instead support them when they need individual access.

Perhaps this bold step will prompt a wider and more decisive response by the global academy. Perhaps it will create more debate about how open access publishing can be developed in such a way that scholarly output is not pulled behind an excessively high paywall. Perhaps the abuse of trade in knowledge in a very imperfect market can be fought after all.

Mind the gap

March 18, 2014

When I was a younger lecturer, most of my students had come to university directly from school. A much smaller number came by different routes: some were mature students seizing a chance to do a university course they had never anticipated doing, and some came to their studies from a so-called ‘gap year’. Typically this latter group came from a more privileged social background. At the time I always enjoyed the particular outlook and approach of mature students, but those who had enjoyed gap years also sometimes had an interesting and more considered outlook on their studies. Of course not everyone could do this; usually it required better off and maybe somewhat indulgent parents.

Now a small number of universities in the United States are experimenting with this phenomenon, and are specifically targeting students from poorer backgrounds. Tufts University for example are offering to fund a gap year for such students by paying for housing, travel and fees. A spokeswoman for the university explained that ‘it’s about providing an experience that up until now has been largely confined to students from more economically privileged backgrounds’.

Will this catch on, and indeed, should it? It’s a difficult question to answer, because more generally the demographics of higher education have changed, as have the expectations of some students as to when in their lives they will do their degree studies. But for those who still travel through the education highway in one unbroken journey, the possibility of a break in the form of a gap year may be interesting. Whether it is affordable, from the university’s point of view, may be another matter; or at least affordable beyond funding a small token number. But this American experiment does remind us that the patterns and expectations of the student experience continue to change.

Subject choices in higher education

March 11, 2014

What is the key driver of student choice when it comes to choosing a degree programme? Well, there probably isn’t one key driver, but any list of the top five or so would have to include this: whatever you’ve just read in the newspapers. When I became President of Dublin City University in 2000 the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was roaring, and driving the boom was the IT sector, and in particular the software industry. So back then everyone wanted to study computing, including those with no visible talent for information technology beyond being able to browse the web. Shortly afterwards the bubble burst, and the next thing we knew was that demand for computing and electronic engineering collapsed; and for years it did not recover, despite the well-publicised evidence of huge skills shortages and high value vacancies in the industry.

For the next few years everyone wanted to do some course of relevance to the construction industry, as Ireland’s building sector was booming. Then came the recession and the crisis in the industry, and suddenly nobody wanted to study architecture, surveying or civil engineering. And now we hear that these courses have once again taken off, as news emerges of growth in construction and higher house prices.

These phenomena are not at all unique to Ireland. In the North-East of Scotland, where the oil industry dominates the local economy, it has been hard to get young people to go for a career in an industry that some media reports claim is in decline (which it isn’t). However that industry has a major shortage of skilled employees, and will have for years to come.

The reasons for all of this are of course complex, but one question one has to ask is how good the advice is that students get when making their choices. It seems not to occur to some of those offering guidance or taking decisions (often parents) that today’s news is irrelevant to a choice that will produce no actual employment decisions for another few years, by which time everything will probably have changed. Students should, on the whole, go for the subjects they feel they would enjoy learning; and those offering them guidance should remember that almost all trends are transient, that we know very little now about tomorrow’s jobs, and that the value of the knowledge, skills and values taught in a course will almost always out-last the ups and downs of any particular sector of the economy.

Is there a STEM crisis in these islands?

February 26, 2014

Quacquarelli Symonds have published the QS world university subject rankings. One particular aspect of these tables has been noted in both the UK and Ireland: that while universities in these islands do well in the arts and humanities and social sciences, they significantly under-perform in science, engineering and mathematics. This must raise serious questions about the capacity of our countries to remain innovation hubs in the next wave of economic development. It raises questions about resourcing and funding, as well as questions about career planning and guidance in the education sector.

It is an urgent task for policy-makers, funders and for universities themselves to look at how our record for achievement in science, engineering and mathematics can be secured for the future. It is of course also true that excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences is needed, but the portfolio of excellence must be balanced across the whole range of academic disciplines.

The right to offend?

February 25, 2014

Every so often in this blog – indeed about once a year – I am driven to write about freedom of speech. Free speech is one of the building blocks of real intellectual endeavour; without it scholarship has no integrity.

Every so often some academic will test this and will make it harder for the rest of us to stay true to our principles. Last year for example I referred to the extraordinary suggestion by a professor from the University of Rochester that the rape of an unconscious woman produced ‘no direct physical harm’ and therefore perhaps nothing to interest the law.

This year it’s a professor from Loyola University in New Orleans. Professor Walter Bock, a libertarian economist and (for those who may understand the significance of the name) a member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, delivered himself of various comments not exactly in tune with modern principles of equality and diversity. Slavery, he suggested, was flawed because a slave’s status was not voluntary, but ‘otherwise … wasn’t so bad’. He also declared that shops should be allowed to refuse to serve black customers because ‘no one is compelled to associate with people against their will.’

Not unexpectedly his colleagues, or many of them, have not been very supportive. with the University’s President publicly criticising Professor Bock, and with a number of academics signing a letter condemning his statements.

Personally I would not hesitate to say that Professor Bock’s comments are outrageous, and I hope that no-one will be persuaded by them. But should he be censured, or indeed should university processes be used to compel him to desist from making them again? That I find more difficult. In fact, I am in a small way disappointed by the actions of the 17 faculty members who signed the letter.

What Professor Bock said was offensive. But part of the objectives of the academy must be to nurture debate, and to protect the right of those who wish to make critical comments. We cannot restrict that protection to those with whom we are inclined to agree, nor can we draw some arbitrary line beyond which those exercising their right to free speech may not go. Universities of all places must accept the value of free speech, with as few restrictions as possible. Bad taste, bad politics, bad moral perspectives even, should not invalidate the right. And those who find someone’s speech to be offensive should engage them in argument, not subject them to censorship. That should be our mission.

Student engagement: a tale of two campuses

February 18, 2014

I had occasion to visit two universities over the last two weeks or so. The first I am going to leave nameless, but I went there to listen to a public lecture. The event was at 6 pm, and the speaker was very good indeed, and I was pleased to have gone. But the audience for this was very small. There were perhaps 15 people in all, and as far as I could tell, none of them were students; indeed I’m not sure there were many staff either. Outside the venue the campus was eerily quiet; everyone had gone home.

Then last Friday I was a panelist at a student-organised event in Trinity College Dublin – the Trinity Economic Forum. The discussion in which I participated was about higher education policy, and the packed lecture theatre must have contained about 200 people. It was at 6.45 pm on a Friday night. Not only were the students there in number, they also participated actively.

The university experience is of course changing all the time. New demographic trends and new technology – to name just two factors – are making a difference to how students interact with the university, with their teachers and with each other. But I still believe that the experience of active engagement, both with people and with topics, as part of the learning process but outside its timetabled elements is a vital element of higher education. It is something we lose at our peril. We must all embrace change, but we must hold on to the goal of student engagement in whatever educational experience we aim for in the future.

Stuart Hall RIP

February 17, 2014

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

This is an educated guess, but I bet that many among the readers of this blog have heard of Professor Stuart Hall, who died on  February 10, aged 82. A giant of cultural theory and sociology, former Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, Professor of Sociology at the Open University (1979 – 1997), Stuart’s influence has spread well beyond national and disciplinary boundaries, from film to media, from cultural history to politics, from literature to sociology.

My personal memories of Stuart Hall date back to the 1980s, when as an undergraduate student in the Department of English Literature at the Orientale University in Naples I sat in one of his seminars. Stuart Hall personally knew most of the staff working in English at the Orientale at the time, since they had spent study periods in Birmingham, and he enjoyed coming to Naples for seminars and lectures. With the enthusiasm of my 20s I remember asking quite a few questions (perhaps too many and not all good ones!) but he answered them with his distinctive kindness and grace. Reading the many obituaries in the press, the online tribute page, or viewing The Stuart Hall Project documentary, one cannot but note a common denominator: Stuart was not only an excellent scholar and communicator, but he knew how to listen and how to inspire young scholars.

Often on this forum, prompted by its author, we debate key aspects of academic life, we argue, bitterly sometimes, and we learn (personally quite a lot) from each other’s insight. Occasionally though we come across examples of academic practice that are true to the meaning of the most abused word in today’s academia: excellence. Stuart Hall is one such examples; no matter whether one agreed with his political stance or not (and he was a committed public intellectual in the best Gramscian tradition), Stuart was inspiring, he was a star researcher (to use today’s terminology), and yet he loved teaching.

Curiously he never wrote a book: he preferred the form of the article (not something that a contemporary promotion committee would consider positively). Together with Richard Hoggart, the other ‘father’ of Cultural Studies and also a visitor to the Orientale in those years, no one else had more of an impact on how I think, teach, and write. Any undergraduate student should have the privilege to come across such an inspirational scholar. So when we think about academia and its contested future, of the many challenges ahead, of the impact of new technologies, and so forth, we might like to pause and reflect upon the core pedagogical values our institutions are going to be based on in years to come. To fully appreciate what such values are we need to look no further than at Stuart Hall’s exemplary life.

Time to worry about men?

February 4, 2014

UCAS, the UK’s agency for managing applications to higher education institutions, last week released the latest statistics on applications for the next academic year. One piece of information that rather stood out in the report was the following:

‘Over 87,000 more women than men have applied, a difference that has increased by 7,000 this year. Young women are a third more likely to apply to higher education than young men.’

This trend is not unique to Britain, nor is it absolutely new. Two years ago in Canada the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario noted:

‘University application rates of women increased from 41 per cent of the potential applicant pool in 1994 to 52 per cent in 2006, while application rates of men rose from 32 per cent to 39 per cent in the same time period.’

It has become increasingly clear that a gender gap is opening up in higher education, in western industrialised countries at least, which has seen women not just entering universities in greater numbers than men, but also out-performing them when there.

Of course we are witnessing this trend in a society that, for generations, has under-valued women’s work and has seen (and still sees) men occupying most leadership roles in business and in society more generally. Is this trend about to be reversed? Will men become the disadvantaged sex? And is this an issue about which educators should feel concern? Will this trend prompt more crime and deviance by young men who feel marginalised?

It is probably a good idea not to over-state the significance of this trend, but it may nevertheless be time to consider ways in which boys and young men can be more effectively motivated to see educational goals as important for their  social status and personal fulfilment. A good bit of work has been done on this; but the key to combating male educational under-achievement lies in the early years of education. This in turn is another bit of evidence pointing to the importance of good pre-school education, particularly for disadvantaged children.

After centuries of discrimination against women it may not feel compelling to worry about men. But it is important to do so nonetheless.


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