Archive for the ‘university’ category

Higher education apocalypse or renewal?

July 29, 2014

As the years and months go by the voices become more insistent that universities across the developed world are in trouble and that many of them will collapse. The latest prophets of doom include a writer for Fortune magazine, Chris Matthews,  and a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen.

Such prophecies are not necessarily new. However, until relatively recently the predictions were based on doubts about whether universities were equipped to deal with a more challenging financial climate, particularly as governments came under pressure to reduce public expenditure during the recent recession. While money issues still get a mention in more recent warnings of pending catastrophe, they may not always be the primary source of concern. What is being highlighted now is the disruptive effect of phenomena such as changing demographics, new technologies, new entrants into the higher education market, corporate disenchantment with older university programmes such as the MBA, and the inability or unwillingness of faculty to adapt to changing conditions.

Notwithstanding all the warnings, it seems to me to be doubtful that many universities will close, though some may find mergers to be more comfortable than precarious survival. That does not mean, however, that there is no cause for concern. Higher education has grown massively globally, but largely on the back of a growth of universities that, with varying degrees of quality and success, all try to do more or less the same kind of thing. The evidence seems to me to suggest that the system needs much more diversity in order to meet social and economic needs. It is not that the old university model has become unserviceable, but rather that it does not meet absolutely everyone’s requirements.

Even if there are now, in most western developed countries, fewer school leavers entering higher education, there are far more wanting access to it at different stages of their lives and careers. There may be a case for some universities focusing less on traditional academic research, and more on research and development that is much closer to identified needs. Some universities may need to engage much more directly in economic, cultural and social regeneration.

Higher education needs to be renewed; but not so as to find a new – different – common identity for all institutions. It needs to recognise, celebrate, encourage and reward successful diversity. If it does that, I suspect the system will remain remarkably robust.

Finding the formula for higher education

July 1, 2014

If you read the pages of political and business magazines these days, then sooner or later you’ll come across an article on higher education that will, almost certainly, suggest that the traditional university model across the developed world is falling apart: buildings, infrastructure and equipment are becoming too expensive; people with great academic potential are being lured away to industry; governments are interfering too much and paying too little; students cannot afford the cost of a university degree; disruptive technologies are creating havoc amongst the old institutions; and so on. Some add that this toxic cocktail of problems will cause many universities to go bankrupt.

The latter prediction one can justifiably take with a grain of salt. For the past decade or so the demise of institutions has been predicted again and again, but none of any significance has in fact collapsed. Some no doubt are living precariously, but they are all still there. Many universities have learned to do what business always does – to respond to financial challenges by cutting costs suddenly and dramatically; redundancies are not so rare now in this sector. But the institutions survive.

And yet there is change in the air. New online courses (including MOOCs) create new learning environments and outcomes (the latter including alarmingly high drop-out rates). Interaction with external partners has become the norm for almost everyone. Research is now often aligned with the drive for national technological innovation.

If we are looking for new models for universities, we need to find an agreed framework for evaluating these. Such a framework must address the two most important questions for assessing higher education: (1) what pedagogical aims are we pursuing? – and (2) what impact do we want scholarship and research to have? Too often I find people discussion higher education innovation in terms of capacity (‘we are doing this because we can do it’) rather than in terms of principle (‘we are doing this because we should do it’).

If universities do go bankrupt, I suspect it is because we are no longer clear about what higher education is for. There is of course more than one good model. But let us at least be clear about what these models are, and why they are desirable.

Universities and cultural regeneration

June 24, 2014

My university, Robert Gordon University, will today launch a major report on how to promote cultural regeneration in the North-East of Scotland. This report was produced by a working group I established last year, chaired by Professor Paul Harris of RGU’s Gray’s School of Art. What follows below is the Foreword I wrote for the report.

‘From the very earliest days of higher education history, universities have been centres of cultural engagement and development. Towns and cities grew around higher learning establishments, and the scholarship nurtured in the universities often provided the roots for local arts and culture. That is still largely true today: almost every city that has a major cultural offering also has world-class universities.

I take the view, as Principal of Robert Gordon University, that this institution has a special relationship with its city and its region, and that it must give expression to this through its contribution to local culture and through its leadership in debates about how that culture and creativity can be further enriched. It was with this in mind that I established the working group that has produced this very valuable report.

It is my hope that the assessment of our cultural future set out in this report, and the recommendations made therein, will provide a valuable contribution to the future of the North-East of Scotland more generally.

I am most grateful to Professor Paul Harris and to the team which produced this report. Moreover, on behalf of RGU I can give an undertaking that we will continue to work with the community of the North-East and with all other key stakeholders to ensure that together we can indeed create a new North.’

Universities have a responsibility to keep arts and culture alive. What RGU hopes and intends to do in the North-East of Scotland should be done by every university in every place. This allows us to be true to our intellectual mission, but also to give extra substance to the need for regional development and a good quality of life.

The RGU report sets out ten key findings and recommendations – more of which tomorrow.

Where will the world’s leading universities be?

May 20, 2014

How countries and regions respond to dramatic economic circumstances can have significant longer term effects on the global balance of power. Two historical developments, for example, shaped the world’s political make-up for the later 20th century: the financial fall-0ut from the First World War, when US dollars moved in to bankroll some of the key European combatants, including Britain; and the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal response to the Great Depression. The Second World War, while significant in that its outcome temporarily side-lined Germany as a major power, merely reinforced what was already a fact in international relations, the supremacy of the United States. Furthermore, the decline of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, demonstrated that military muscle not supported by economic power was actually a handicap rather than a support, a point underscored also by the rise of Japan and (West) Germany in the 1960s.

The recent recession, which may now at last be coming to an end in global markets, will probably also leave a significant legacy, and this time it is higher education that may see some of the major changes. In itself that is not new. The ability of the United States to consolidate its global economic dominance in the 1950s was hugely supported by major investment in higher education, and by the tendency of the US to attract and retain talented scientists and academics from across the world to add excellence to its universities. When we see the global university rankings, we don’t just discover where to find higher education excellence, we observe the world’s power structures.

The question now is whether those rankings will still look the same in 10 years time. Many presume that the position of Asian universities will have improved dramatically, as the key countries there are channelling big investments into their higher education systems right now. Not just China (which has been investing huge sums in its universities), but also Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are taking aggressive steps to give their universities a chance of global recognition. But this is coming at a time when the major western countries in the North America and Europe talk the language of higher education development while simultaneously withdrawing the resources. For some time now the University of California system, containing arguably the best cluster of public universities in the world, has been under serious threat due to funding cutbacks. In Europe the rankings show no sign that any national sector other than the British is on the rise.

However, I believe that the US will turn itself around and continue to drive global excellence in its higher education, even if they may find themselves sharing the limelight a little more with universities from Asia. But in Europe? The signs are not necessarily that great. Even the new U-Multirank ranking system that has been devised in Europe (with the hope held in some quarters that it would return more European universities in the top places) still shows American universities leading the field. To change this, countries in this part of the world need to show ambition and vision in their higher education policies. If they don’t, we are in a community of nations doomed to slip into the second tier and stay there. It’s not too late to correct this, but there isn’t much time.

Refreshing the mind

May 6, 2014

A few months ago I visited  a well known company and was struck by some of the facilities they maintain for their employees. One of these was a darkened room in which there were recliner seats where people could go to take a nap. The idea is, I was told, that they re-emerge from the room refreshed and tackle their work with much greater vigour.

This approach has now also been adopted by a university: the University of Michigan has introduced ‘napping stations’ in their library, consisting of beds and pillows. This is intended to allow students to take a break and overcome the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

It will be interesting to observe how these napping stations are used and what the impact is, assuming this can be properly assessed. It seems to me that there may be scope more generally to look again at how institutions can provide facilities that allow both staff and students to seek refreshment and a break from routine – particularly if this enhances creativity.

Wise counsel

April 29, 2014

I may have been a very insensitive person back in the 1970s when I was a student, but I have to say honestly that I cannot remember any of my fellow students suffering any form of psychological distress. Of course we don’t ever know what goes on in someone else’s mind, and how much distress some people learn to absorb before they eventually snap. There must have been some who were stressed by examinations, personal relationships, concerns about whether they would find employment, and so forth. But I was not aware of any of this, nor was I aware of any university support services that might have helped those in need of them. Indeed in preparing to write this post, I have dug out the booklets and manuals and information I was given when I was a fresher, and there is no reference in them to any counselling or similar services; though there is, believe it or not, a robust defence of the use of recreational drugs. Well, it was the 1970s.

Thankfully most universities nowadays employ professional counsellors who can support students in difficulty. And while I cannot imagine that there were no students with such needs 40 years ago, it seems clear to me that the stresses and pressures that might create these needs are much stronger nowadays. Recently for example it was reported that 1,300 students of the University of Glasgow saw a counsellor in the last academic year: that is about 7 per cent of the entire student body. Students enter university with huge pressures: financial, personal, professional, academic. Not only are these pressures common, they tend to affect those most who have nobody to talk to to relieve them. The variety of problems counsellors may encounter and the complex needs of those seeking help are shown in this account of the work of a counsellor at a Canadian university.

Mental health and wellbeing are vital in higher education institutions. So universities need to provide and value the work of professional counsellors, sometimes also of chaplaincies or indeed student initiatives (such as the ‘Please Talk‘ programme in Ireland). Whatever form these services take, they should be strongly supported by universities everywhere. The key principle should be that, whatever your problem, you must know that you need never be alone. Never.

The CBI, Scotland’s independence referendum and the universities

April 24, 2014

The following article was first published today by the Press and Journal, Aberdeen.

Universities play a key role in the community. They are engines of invention and innovation, and they are also spaces for debate in which all voices are recognized and encouraged. It is not always an easy role to play, and it gets most complex when issues being debated are controversial or in any way difficult. In a few months Scotland will be invited to take one of the most important decisions in several generations: whether it wishes to be an independent country. As one would expect, there are strong opinions on this question, and there is a robust campaign taking place leading up to the referendum itself.

Last weekend the campaign gained a new active participant: the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) registered with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of the No campaign. In doing so it created issues for at least some of its members: those who might favour a Yes vote, and those whose duty it is to remain neutral; this latter group includes the universities.

I have no doubt that this CBI decision was a wrong decision. It had previously expressed concerns about the impact of independence (as was perfectly appropriate), but declaring itself as partisan on the issue was something different, creating real problems for organisations that, also perfectly appropriately, hold a different view. We were not consulted before the decision was taken, but if I had been, I would have offered a robust opinion in the matter.

Some universities reacted to the CBI move by resigning immediately from membership. RGU took a different approach. While I immediately said that we disapproved of the CBI decision, I wanted us to reflect on how we could best deal with the problem that had arisen and that was not of our making. We are an industry-focused university, with many links and partnerships in the business community. Equally, we need to be sure that we are both remaining neutral in this important national debate, but that we also provide a safe space for both sides in the debate.

These are the principles that we will apply as we move to decide how we should respond to the CBI move. That is the duty we owe to our students, our friends and our partners in the wider community.

Subsequent to the publication of this article by the Press and Journal, and after extensive consultation, I decided that RGU will suspend its membership of the CBI, and will review the position after the Referendum.

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? The 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.’


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