Archive for the ‘university’ category

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.

Just play the game, you’ll figure out the rules as you go along

March 16, 2014

Guest post by Dr Emily Beaumont, an early career academic at Plymouth University, UK.  You can find her also at emilybeaumont.wordpress.com or @EmilyFBeaumont (Twitter)

Anybody who has had the above statement (in the title of this post) thrown at them before a card game will know that despite the enjoyment of playing the game, they will have to spend a significant amount of time figuring out and understanding the rules.

This is my fourth year of working in academia as an early career academic. I’ve enjoyed every minute (well nearly every minute) of my experience so far yet I still feel I’m trying to figure out the rules of a well-established game. There are rules you learn early on such as ‘Don’t underestimate the value of the administrative staff’, ‘Don’t let your research slip as you become overwhelmed with teaching’ and ‘Don’t immediately say yes to taking over somebody’s place on a committee’. I didn’t know about this later rule until it was too late: I currently sit on six committees. Then there are those rules which creep in and surprise you, just as you think you’ve grasped them all; ‘Keep every email’, ‘Always take your external examiner out to a decent restaurant’ and ‘Network, network, network!’

Yet despite losing a round here and there to inexperience, when you’re playing a game you’re ultimately still smiling and having fun. Which in academia can’t be bad and in due course aids collegiality. However as I continue on my early career academic journey I take advice from no other than Albert Einstein:

‘You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.’

Naming rights

March 7, 2014

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was enthusiastically elected by my fellow students to represent them at staff meetings of my Faculty. Well, I was elected. When I came to the first meeting, I found that all the academic staff present addressed each other by their surnames. In fact, it went further: staff always called students Mr or Miss (Ms hadn’t yet become popular; yes I am that old) Bloggs.

When I started as a lecturer in the same institution I initially continued the tradition (I was even known, at first, to lecture occasionally in a gown). But after a while I got tired of all that and started calling everyone – staff, students, anyone within earshot – by their first names. And that’s how I have kept it as I climbed up the academic ladder and, eventually, became a university president (or principal, here in Scotland). In DCU I used to tell colleagues that the only time I would tolerate being addressed as ‘President’ was if the person so addressing me intended to follow that with something entirely insulting.

But it is useful to remember that not everyone is comfortable with this. In an article on the website Inside Higher Education an Australian lecturer laments the growth of the now standard informality because, in her view, it undermines the lecturer’s authority and the desire to teach students in a professional manner.

So now, I am wondering whether her views are more typical of the profession than mine. It would be interesting to hear feedback from readers of this blog.

Recognising hard work in higher education

March 4, 2014

OK, I shall tell this as it is. One of the most galling experiences of any university leader (or at least of this one) is to be told that academics lead an easy life and are under no pressure to work hard. It is a miserably resilient piece of horse shit, that is spread around society like manure, but of the kind that clogs the system rather than nourish it.

Those who work in universities, on the whole still, enjoy more flexible terms, meaning that they have some discretion as to how to organise their working lives. That just about still exists. But mostly, this discretion is exercised by academics (and also other university staff) in taking on far more than they should. It is a job in which you will find yourself working at any hour of the day or night. In my university it is known that I do most of my emailing at night, and I often worry that some might feel under pressure to respond at such times; I hope they know there is no such expectation. But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight? How many people in other jobs accept assignments and tasks that they know when they accept them they will only be able to perform at weekends or at night or during their annual leave? And how many professionals elsewhere have to take on the chin ‘witty’ suggestions that they have five months annual holidays when they know that, if they are lucky, they’ll take three weeks?

Some years ago, in another university for which I then worked as a Dean, I recruited a young woman who had decided she would leave a very busy legal practice to become an academic, so she would have a fighting chance of seeing more of her children. Two years later she returned to the legal practice because she found her academic work was far more stressful; and this has got much worse since then.

Not every university lecturer is perfect of course. But there are many documented accounts of how the pressures of academic work affect people’s lives and, sometimes, their health. And yet, few lecturers are pleading for major change, though they may be hoping for something more sensible. But perhaps a good start would be for society to acknowledge that we have created a higher education world in which people fulfil what others might regard as unreasonable expectations, and that they deserve some recognition and respect for it. That would not be everything, but it would be a good start.

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.

Glasgow’s absentee Rector

February 20, 2014

I wrote this post for the website The Conversation, and it was first published on that site

Students at the University of Glasgow have just elected their 127th rector, Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower. It seems fairly unlikely that Snowden will participate in the university’s governance or in the task of representing students. Then again, his election has brought global attention well beyond what his very respectable predecessor, former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, was ever able to secure. He is the first American to fill this position, but he will almost certainly not be expecting a message of congratulations from the US government.

Glasgow University’s students have form. On previous occasions they have elected other people who were unable to travel to Glasgow, including South African activists Winnie Mandela and Albert Lutuli, and Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. But the Glasgow rectorship is not just a haven for international dissidents. It is worth pointing out that students have more generally elected pillars of the establishment such as Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham), BBC Director General Lord Reith, and the afore-mentioned Charles Kennedy.

So what is this all about? Is the role of rector so unimportant that anyone, no matter how absent from duties they are likely to be, is a good choice? Maybe the importance of the role lies somewhere else. Glasgow University graduate and prominent broadcast journalist Andrew Neil tweeted: “Whistleblower Edward Snowden has been elected as rector of Glasgow University following a student vote. My alma mater.” He then added: “Sometimes you need a working rector. Sometimes you need to make a statement.”

What exactly is the role of a rector in the Scottish university stem? Although in both Glasgow and Aberdeen there had been rectors prior to this, the office was given a formal legal status by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858, which described the rector as “the ordinary president of the university”. In 1889, further legislation provided for their election by students, or in the case of the University of Edinburgh, by staff and students. The legislation applied (and still applies) to all universities in existence at the time: St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Subsequently the position of rector was also established in the University of Dundee. Other Scottish universities do not have a rector. Except in the case of Dundee, the rector is entitled to chair governing body meetings, but generally does not do so.

The original intention behind establishing the office of rector was to secure some level of student and lay, or non-academic, participation in the running of universities. Today that original purpose may seem less urgent. Students have since been given direct representation on university governing bodies, and lay members are now usually in the majority on these bodies. Perhaps partly because of that, students started to elect what could be described as vanity candidates. They were chosen because of their celebrity status, or as political figures who were in no position to play any active role. To avoid this trend, a Rector’s Charter was drawn up in 2007, which commits rectors to performing their function for a specified number of days every month, to be available to students and to attend the vast majority of governing body meetings.

In the light of Snowden’s election, how should we evaluate the office? Does it still serve a purpose? When I chaired the review of higher education governance in Scotland in 2011, we asked all the universities to provide us with views on the role and its usefulness. Those universities that had rectors, including Glasgow, suggested that the role should continue. All those that didn’t have one indicated they didn’t want one. And so the system has remained as it was.

To those who sometimes bemoan the apparent disengagement by students from the global political concerns of the day, a high profile and energetically conducted campaign to recognise a controversial political figure may seem like a refreshing return to the days of student campaigns for something other than cheaper catering. On the other hand, to those who want to see an effective mechanism for representing student interests, a rector who is confined to some unidentified place in Russia may not seem best placed to deliver the goods.

In the end the rector will be, or not be, whatever students want. Those universities that have rectors will probably continue to find that each term of office has the capacity to be very different.

Snowden will not be holding the management of the University of Glasgow to account. To some, his association with the university will be an embarrassment. But every generation of students must have a right to make a statement in some way they regard as appropriate. Whether the rest of us really approve is, I suspect, not the most important consideration.

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.

University assets

January 28, 2014

Here’s an interesting news item from Bloomberg. American university endowments are faring well again as investments are once more producing much better returns. That’s not what I am drawing attention to, however. The article also tells us that the 835 institutions surveyed between them hold $448.6 billion of assets. This means that the average US university has reserves of some $537 million. Wrapped up in that is Harvard’s mouth-watering  $32.7 billion, a sum that would allow it to bail out Greece if it wished.

We should not however sit around in amazement, those of us in other countries need to do something to build up viable reserves. University endowments are not about creating luxury in higher education, they are about creating an ability to invest in real excellence, and also to provide proper supports for students who not so well off. US graduates have long accepted that supporting their university is one of the things that you do, and this acceptance allowed American universities to become truly world-beating. We need to develop the same habits. We need to create the kind of reserves that allow universities to secure their future and to avoid that constant knife-edge budgeting that afflicts most universities across the world. We need our universities to be really excellent and to invest in the future of all parts of society.

Creating ‘Technological Universities’ in Ireland

January 22, 2014

The Irish government has published the Technological Universities Bill 2014, and with it proposes to re-cast the Irish higher education sector. This is part of a new framework which was heralded in the Hunt Report in 2011 (the National Strategy for Higher Education) and which has been confirmed as government policy subsequently. Under this policy it was suggested that where two or more current Institutes of Technology merge, and where they satisfy certain criteria, they could become ‘technological universities’; the suggestion in the Hunt Report being that this is an established international type of university.

The legal instrument to give effect to all this is to be the new Bill, which is described as follows in the explanatory note accompanying it:

‘The Long Title of the Bill provides that the purpose of this legislation is to provide for the merger of Dublin Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Tallaght and Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown to form the new Dublin Institute of Technology and to provide for other institutes of technology to merge. The purpose of the Bill is also to provide for the establishment of a technological university and for the designation of institutes of technology merged under the Act as technological universities.’

As this note suggests, the Bill puts the cart some distance before the horse, because it first provides for the merger of three existing Institutes of Technology in the Dublin area, under the name of the largest of these, Dublin Institute of Technology. It then sets out terms under which other clusters of Institutes may be merged. The fact that DIT is given a special chapter in the Bill tells us that this particular merger has already been finalised and will proceed.

The Bill then sets out thee process and criteria for the establishment of a merged set of Institutes (for which the new DIT automatically qualifies) as a ‘Technological University’, subject to certain conditions. These conditions will be specified by the Minister for Education by order, but under section 28 must take account of the following:

(a) the provision of programmes at all levels of higher education with particular reference to the National Framework of Qualifications, and the breadth and orientation of those programmes to reflect the skills needs in the labour force,
(b) the profile of learners at the time of application to include; (i) a minimum of 4% of full time equivalent student enrolments in honours degree programmes or above to be enrolled in postgraduate programmes; (ii) a combined minimum of 30% of all enrolments to be in flexible learning programmes; professional or industry based programmes; or mature learners;
(c) the provision of high quality research and innovation activities with direct social and economic impacts for the region of location of the institution, with the capacity to support programmes and doctoral training in a minimum of three fields of knowledge/study at the time of application;
(d) evidence of a high level of engagement of the institute with business, enterprise, the professions and other related stakeholders in the region within which the institute operates,
(e) the profile of the staff of the institute, with particular reference to the qualifications of the teaching staff to include a minimum of 90% of full time academic staff to hold a postgraduate qualification with a minimum of 45% of full time academic staff to hold a doctoral qualification or terminal degree appropriate to their profession at the time of application,
(f) the quality of educational provision of the institute, with particular reference to quality assurance procedures, curriculum development informed by the needs of enterprise, and programme development,
(g) the current and planned activities of the institute to enhance its internationalisation relating to teaching, research, staff and student mobility and collaboration, and
(h) a high standard in the overall management and governance of the institute concerned, including the establishment of properly integrated and effective academic governance structures sufficient to enable the institute to deliver the objects and functions of a technological university …

The Bill then sets out the process to be followed in the case of any application to become a Technological University, which will involve in particular the setting up of an advisory panel. If this panel recommends the establishment, the Minister may then proceed with the appropriate order. There are also provisions for the expansion of Technological Universities through the inclusion of other third level institutions.

Section 50 of the Bill then sets out the proposed ‘objects’ of a Technological University, as follows:

(a) to provide and maintain a teaching and learning environment of excellent quality offering higher education at an international standard;
(b) to provide for the broad education, intellectual and personal development of students, equip graduates to excel in their chosen careers and enable them to contribute responsibly to social, civic and economic life in innovative and adaptable ways.
(c) to achieve academic excellence in research and support the exploitation of intellectual property and technology and knowledge transfer.
(d) to support entrepreneurship, enterprise development and innovation.
(e) to support the development of a skilled workforce.
(f) to promote inward and outward mobility of staff and students between the Technological University, business, industry, the professions and the wider community.
(g) to serve their communities and the public interest by- (i) supporting the delivery of local, regional and national economic objectives and making a measurable impact upon local, regional and national economic development, businesses and enterprises; (ii) fostering close and effective relationships with local, regional, national and international stakeholders, including relevant local authorities and regional assemblies, and enterprise partners. (iii) enriching cultural and community life; 82 (iv) promoting critical and free enquiry, informed intellectual discourse and public debate within the Technological University and in the wider society; (v) promoting an entrepreneurial ethos;
(h) to provide accessible and flexible learning pathways for students from a diverse range of backgrounds and to provide programmes and services in a way that reflects principles of equity and social justice and promotes access for all citizens in their region;
(i) to confer degrees and other qualifications;
(j) to utilise or exploit its expertise and resources, whether commercially or otherwise
(k) to provide directly, or in collaboration with other institutions of education, facilities for university education, including technological and professional education, and for research.
(l) to develop international collaborations and partnerships.

There will no doubt be considerable interest in this legislation, which will change fundamentally the Irish higher education system. The new framework is essentially the result of political lobbying by certain institutes which have argued that, for reasons relating to their achievements but also relating to local economic development needs, they should be given university status. Previous assessments of such cases on traditional criteria for university status have failed. This new framework is based on the rather questionable assertion in Hunt that there is an established concept of a ‘technological university’, and that this can use different criteria from those that apply to existing universities.

It is also based on the interesting understanding that a cluster of institutes, none of which individually could make a successful claim for university status, should be more eligible as a group; an understanding that could fairly easily be challenged. As I have argued elsewhere, if, say, Waterford Institute of Technology is not eligible to be a university, the case does not become more convincing because you have added Carlow Institute, which by every yardstick is a much weaker institution.

However, in the end this new framework will be driven by political rather than academic considerations. What impact this will have on the university system and its global reputation remains to be seen. It should perhaps be said that there is a good case for considering some institutes for university status; but whether this is the best way of looking at this is, at least in my view, highly questionable.


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