Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

To merge or not to merge: is that really a useful question?

October 28, 2014

One of the experiences of higher education is that policy-makers are all too easily seduced by the alleged benefits of merging institutions. This is true of politicians, but also of those who advise them and write policy papers for them. Much of the narrative focuses on the claimed disadvantages of having too many institutions, the hoped for savings brought about by having fewer universities, and the assumed better performance and impact of bigger higher education entities. While there may be a few examples that appear to demonstrate some of this, there is little consistent evidence that would back up these claims and aspirations.

In fact, most mergers that appear to have worked will on closer analysis be shown not to be mergers at all, but rather take-overs of smaller, often specialised, institutions by much larger universities. In such cases the smaller institutions will often be able to slot in to their new host university as a department, school or Faculty, keeping alive a good bit of the ethos and spirit of the legacy body. So for example I would expect the recent merger of London’s Institute of Education with University College London to work well, and indeed also the planned integration into Dublin City University of St Patrick’s College of Education (and others). These mergers work because they don’t require anyone to lose their ethos or purpose and don’t confuse their strategic direction.

It is an entirely different matter when policy-makers force on institutions mergers where there is no clear strategic reason for the integration, or rather where the reasons are based on totally unproven assertions or assumptions, and where the main objective just seems to be to make the institutions bigger. Contrary to what many politicians and their advisers appear to believe, there is absolutely no evidence that larger universities are more successful or are capable of having a bigger impact than smaller ones; indeed there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. So for example, not a single one of the 500 largest universities in the world is in the top 500 best universities in the world, regardless of which rankings you consult. By contrast, the best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings is also one of the smallest.

All of this has come into focus once again because of the truly bizarre spectacle now taking place in Ireland. Under a new framework for ‘technological universities’ (a category that has no objective meaning, as I have noted previously) institutes of technology can apply to become such an institution and so gain university status provided they merge with one or more other institutes first. One institute that has for some time been attempting to become a university is Waterford Institute of Technology. Following the new framework it had agreed to explore a merger with Carlow Institute. Last week however Waterford IT broke off negotiations with Carlow; according to media reports the reason was that its key performance indicators would suffer if such a merger were to take place, therefore making it less likely that it would be able to meet the legislation’s other criteria for ‘technological university’ status. The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan TD, has reacted to this by telling Waterford IT that it must merge with Carlow IT if it is to succeed in its bid for a change of status.

All of this underlines again the totally crazy nature of the new Irish framework. The message being presented to Waterford IT is that it cannot be a ‘technological university’ on its own, but that if it merges with a weaker institute it may be eligible. This is an incomprehensible requirement, which appears to be based on the notion that size is the only criterion that counts, and that all other elements of quality are irrelevant, or at least much less important.

Institutional mergers may be a good idea in certain circumstances, but they should take place because they make sense for the institutions concerned and because they add value. To require mergers simply because they align with someone’s general notion that mergers are good regardless of other considerations is a recipe for disaster. In the case of Ireland, it is very doubtful whether the whole idea of a ‘technological university’ makes sense in the first place. Waterford Institute of Technology is a fine institution with significant elements of quality. It should be judged in its bid for university status on the basis of those qualities. Forcing it to merge with another institution in which those elements are largely absent is no way to pursue this agenda.

Time to take the stress out of academic life?

October 20, 2014

Out there in what some still call the ‘real world’, there are many who will profess to believe that an academic’s life is full of relaxed days and pleasant comforts. Most of those working in the academy have known for some time that this is not so. Nor is this new: I have mentioned before in this blog that as far back as the 1990s I appointed a lecturer from an external professional legal practice background who left the university a relatively short while later because the work was too stressful.

Now there is another piece of new evidence. The Scottish education union, EIS, has conducted a survey of its members, which has come up with the following finding:

‘Teaching staff in the university sector have lower levels of wellbeing and satisfaction compared to overall scores of those working across all sectors of education. Some of the factors which contribute to lecturers’ wellbeing scores include concerns over management and leadership in their institution, as well as significant workload pressures and a lack of access to appropriate professional development.’

According to the survey results the two chief causes of stress are workloads and ‘dealing with management’.

There is no question that academics, as much as anyone else, have the right to a working environment that minimises stress and creates, to the greatest extent possible, a positive sense of opportunity and inclusion and a sense that everyone is valued and supported. But there also needs to be some recognition that stress apparently caused by management is often the result of external pressures, and in the system as a whole this requires more analysis. Universities are subject to mounting regulations, controls, targets and expectations, many of them encased in a framework of bureaucracy that maximises these pressures. It is time to look again at how all of this works, both in the system as a whole and within institutions. Stressed out and overworked university staff will not secure a world class university sector.

Gender in university leadership and governance

October 7, 2014

As is well known, in many university courses women now make up the majority of the student body. But when you get to academic lecturing staff, in the UK only 39 per cent are women. The proportion of senior academic posts filled by women is smaller still. There is still clearly a job to be done in higher education to ensure that there are no barriers that keep women from pursuing successful careers to the highest level in universities.

In this particular debate, one other part of the system is now coming under increasing scrutiny: university governance. There was some evidence that until recently university governing bodies were finding it difficult to achieve any kind of gender balance.  When the panel that I chaired reviewed higher education governance in Scotland in 2012, we recommended that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim.

The Herald newspaper has now looked more closely at gender distribution on university governing bodies, and found that there has been some improvement in Scotland, at least to the extent that a number of higher education institutions now have female chairs.

More generally, it is true to say that gender imbalance is not as severe as it used to be; but it is still far from perfect. Universities need to continue to address this issue, not least so as to ensure that women (and indeed men) do not end up in single-sex ghettoes in the labour market. A significant part of getting this right is to ensure that there are role models for both sexes: male teachers, female engineers, male therapists, female computer programmers. And of course, women as university heads and chairs.

Irish higher education and the quest for something better

September 29, 2014

During my ten years as an Irish university President, one of my recurring and deeply frustrating experiences was encountering politicians who had persuaded themselves that the university sector received too much funding, wasted resources and needed more control to resolve this problem. Two of the four Ministers for Education who held office during my tenure came into the job proclaiming that something was wrong with the universities. One of them decided to test his suspicions by introducing funding cuts in the middle of an economic boom, while the other declared he was establishing a ‘forensic audit’ to find out where all the money was being stashed away by the institutions. Both of them hinted they had postbags full of complaints from citizens about wasteful expenditure in the sector.

Throughout the decade the university Presidents robustly defended the universities, pointing out that they delivered excellent results on the back of per capita funding far below that available to institutions in other developed countries. Then came the recession, and in 2008 we were advised that cuts would come soon, and would be brutal. Salaries were cut and employment was controlled, student contributions went up and government funding was reduced significantly. Now, six or so years on, the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, writing in the Irish Times, has said that government funding has over this period been reduced by ‘almost a third’, seriously affecting the student experience and university rankings. Perhaps a little confusingly, he also suggests that ‘through the dedication and hard work of both front and backline staff in the universities, quality, although at risk, has been maintained.’

It is very difficult for universities to make a case that a crisis threatens to engulf the system when they also suggest that cuts of 30 per cent have not compromised quality. Indeed that suggestion might convince long retired education ministers that they were right all along. Global rankings tend to attract media comment, but how much they really affect university fortunes could be debated. Even student/staff ratios generate much more excitement amongst lecturers than they aggravate students.

One of the problems is that few of those engaged in the higher education conversation have made a clear case as to what constitutes quality, and therefore what could be put at risk by inadequate resources.  The quality assurance industry built up over the past decade or so has focused on process rather than substance, and reports emerging from that system give few clues as to how close we may be to compromised educational standards. Saying that quality has been maintained gives little insight into what might happen if ‘quality’ were damaged or lost. Nor does it tell us much about what investment could do to raise standards and assure global competitiveness. Saying something like ‘if you give us more money we’ll ensure that what we’ve always done is performed to the highest level of quality’ won’t be persuasive if you’ve just said that without this money you’ve actually managed to achieve the same thing.

Irish higher education clearly does need more money, but it also needs new ideas and new models of delivering learning and research. It needs a narrative, a ‘story’. The IUA is an excellent and well-led organisation, and there is imaginative leadership in the universities. Generating this story is not a task that cannot be performed effectively.

Calls for more funding, or for other resourcing mechanisms including tuition fees, will make little headway as long as those who will take the decisions don’t really see what the new money will buy and why that should be bought. It is time to generate a narrative that says something about what higher education should be doing that would have the potential to transform the lives of those experiencing it and the fortunes of the country, beyond what has been delivered in the past. It would perhaps be better to stop talking about percentages, or resources, or processes, and to focus instead on what a new and maybe somewhat different framework of higher education can do for society. People need to be convinced that there is something better out there that deserves some money. Right now, I suspect most politicians and officials are persuaded that cuts have gone some way to reducing excess fat without seriously compromising quality, and that the impact of these cuts can and should be contained by a bigger dose of centralised controls: the worst of all possible worlds.

Scotland

September 19, 2014

Exactly three and a half years ago I arrived in Scotland to take up my post of Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. At the time there was a minority SNP government in Edinburgh, but within weeks the Scottish elections delivered an overall majority for Alex Salmond, and the path to a referendum on independence was set. Today we know the answer: a decisive but not overwhelming majority of Scots have opted for staying in the United Kingdom, having received a list of promises from the major UK parties of new devolved powers and responsibilities.

Scotland’s First Minister has called on the country to accept and respect the outcome, and that is a good start to the post-referendum deliberations. But the London parties will need to deliver a number of changes. Chiefly these will need to involve a much greater level of economic and fiscal autonomy, not least so that Scotland can stop being a recipient of a UK grant and instead develop a proactive and innovative economic strategy of its own, ensuring that it can be a successful innovation hub.

Universities can make a major contribution to this. During the referendum campaign one perhaps unexpected issue of contention in the political and popular debate was research funding. A number of academics expressed concerns that Scotland would lose access to UK research council funding, from which a number of the country’s universities had benefited disproportionately. I am myself all in favour of continuing UK research awards for Scottish academics, but I don’t see it as a priority in the same way. I believe that a distinct Scottish research funding framework, recognising the opportunities for successful growth in industry R&D linked to academic expertise, and recognising also the specific social and cultural needs of Scotland, would secure significant benefits.

For many who believed that independence could and would offer an exciting future for Scotland this is a disappointing day. But the energy visible over recent months on all sides of the campaign should now be harnessed to continue building a better, more successful, more innovative, more prosperous, more attractive Scotland. There is still much that can be achieved.

MOOCs and online learning – moving beyond the silly hype

September 1, 2014

A year or two ago a number of people who wanted to grab a bit of public attention in higher education claimed loudly that MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) were the future, and that all universities would have to go down this route. One English university vice-chancellor predicted that universities which did not embrace MOOCs would ‘risk being left behind’. Nobody, not even the co-founder of major MOOCs provider Coursera, could say what business model was supposed to under-pin this revolution, and often the rhetoric sounded more like revivalist preaching than educational strategy – but the hype continued to roll and seemed to have the capacity to persuade rational commentators that MOOCs were the future. Not even the really annoying acronym seemed to be able to put people off.

So a couple of years later, what do we see? MOOCs are still around, but thankfully the over-excited breathless rhetoric has calmed down. Thousands of courses were developed, but in most of these the overwhelming majority of students dropped out before completion. Few people now think that MOOCs will turn higher education upside down. Nobody is arguing any more than all universities must offer hundreds of MOOCs or perish. More importantly, most now accept that a university course with thousands of students that generates absolutely no income cannot be the way forward for the system. What we have instead is a growing movement to consider how online learning can be used to improve pedagogy and how online courses can provide a viable income stream.

The obvious way forward of course was to focus on the online aspect of MOOCs, and to be more realistic about student numbers and funding. Some universities (e.g. Georgia Tech) are now charging a tuition fee for such courses, though admittedly the fee is rather lower than for the ‘normal’ on-campus programme. Providers like Coursera are now looking for corporate customers to invest in courses. More generally, the much more reasonable agenda now is to find ways in which the MOOCs experience can support new developments that will bring higher education of good quality to larger audiences and how these participants can be properly supported.

There is no question that online learning will be a major part of the future. It is right to suggest that some disruptive change may improve what universities do. It is reasonable to argue that the traditional model of higher education cannot be the only way to offer teaching and learning. But it is also good not to get carried away by each new bit of hype.

Minerva – the travelling university

August 19, 2014

As various university models receive consideration in discussions and research papers, one perhaps somewhat quirky initiative is actually being rolled out in Silicon Valley: the Minerva Schools. The project is the brainchild of Ben Nelson, an American entrepreneur who led and later sold the photo-sharing website Snapfish. It is, according to some reports, the product of Nelson’s dislike of traditional universities. So he has come up with something different – a ‘university’ that teaches its students in unorthodox settings that take them to four different global locations in the course of their studies.

The first year, during which all students will be in San Francisco, sees participants focusing on what are described as ‘Cornerstone courses':

‘Your first year academics comprise the Cornerstone courses. From the study of complex systems to investigations into the principles of rhetoric and modes of artistic expression, the Cornerstones provide an integrated survey of the core curriculum. These four courses are the common intellectual platform from which you and your classmates will develop the skills required for future success.’

After that the students spread across the world in several continents, finishing their final year in London or New York. By then they will, according to the plan, have mastered ‘critical thinking, creative problem solving and effective communication’, and they will then pull this together in the development of a ‘personal vision’.

The available information is somewhat patchy about how all this will work organisationally and indeed pedagogically, but there is enough here to have attracted 33 founding students, who are about to embark upon their courses.

Can this work? That is impossible to say. Is it a worthwhile contribution to the development of new higher education models? Still difficult to say. But it may be worth watching how those first students fare as they enter the programme – and indeed, whether they will still be there in three years.


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