Archive for the ‘university’ category

‘Non-academic’ staff in the academy

October 13, 2014

One of the refreshing aspects of my university, Robert Gordon University, is that it makes few distinctions between those employees who have academic tasks, and those whose work is administrative, secretarial, technical or professional. There is no hierarchy of decision-making that places the latter groups in a less favourable position. This is significant, because in most other universities I know there appears to be open or covert warfare between academics and others.

I once attended a meeting of one of the learned academic bodies and was astounded to hear a very senior professor from another institution argue that administrators were a cancer in the academic system, but I was even more alarmed when that statement was greeted with mutters of approval by many others present. Academics, the speaker suggested, were entitled to expect priority support from, more or less, an obsequious caste of non-academics seeing to their needs. More nods and sotto voce statements of agreement.

One of the key requirements for any successful organisation is that its key members and employees see themselves as being in the same family, group or team. I have seen more energy wasted in in-fighting between groups than I care to remember, and it helps nobody. But there should in any case be an ethical principle that expects and observes basic equality between different types of staff, whoever they may be.

Those commenting on higher education often ask whether the proportion of administrative and support staff is higher than it should be, with the unspoken assumption that a percentage closer to zero is ideal. This is not a good starting point, since without administrative and other support functions we are always at some risk that we cannot adequately provide student services and high value research.

Of course academics are usually the front line staff who provide the teaching and research functions that represent the university’s core business, and all staff need to recognise that and work accordingly to facilitate this function. But we are all part of the collegiate group, and nobody should be allowed to look down on people in other parts of the organisation. I believe that, by and large, we have got this pretty much right in RGU.

One way in which we might express this better is by finding an label that is better than ‘non-academic staff’ for those who are not professors, lecturers or researchers. It is demeaning to define a role by saying what it is not – there must be a more positive way of expressing it. That is something the academy could usefully concern itself with.

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.

Information overload

September 22, 2014

No reasonable person can be opposed to the idea of freedom of information: the idea that bodies in receipt of public money should be accountable and should be required to release information about how it is spent and how decisions are taken. I am instinctively and on principle in favour of such a framework.

But my support for freedom of information is sometimes sorely tested. So for example, recently I received my university’s report on freedom of information requests received in July and August of this year. There was a total of 33 requests – which I might say in passing is considerably more than the total we would typically have received in a full year when I was President of Dublin City University. We have calculated that processing and answering these 33 requests took 42 hours of staff time, in addition to the time spent by our freedom of information officer in managing the system.

I might have felt this was justifiable if the questions were of real significance and answering them met a public need. Some were. But a majority of them were submitted by people and organisations who wanted us to compile lists of products we use or services we require; in other words they wanted us to provide them with free information on the basis of which they could seek private business deals with us. One particularly annoying question asked us to compile a list of annoying FOI requests we receive.

Freedom of information is a precious resource and should be maintained. But there needs to be a mechanism which distinguishes genuine requests from those that merely try to secure private commercial advantage or which ask us to engage in detailed analysis of rather trivial issues, using significant public money in the process. It may be time to allow us to charge for the staff time spent in compiling answers. Freedom of information should not become a major bureaucracy in its own right.

A place for the lads?

September 15, 2014

Round about now, in universities across many parts of the world, young people are beginning their university courses and experiencing the higher education environment for the first time. Many of them will quickly thrive in an atmosphere of critical inquiry as they acquire new knowledge and skills. But often before they really get to that, they experience university life in its more exuberant form, as parties and other social events are held to celebrate the new academic year.

Most of this is good – the experience of social interaction is one of the objectives of higher education. But occasionally early (and subsequent) extra-curricular activities can take on less desirable forms. A survey conducted by the UK’s National Union of Students has found that 26 per cent of students have suffered unwelcome sexual advances, going up to 37 per cent in the case of women. The existence on campus of a ‘lad culture’ is, the NUS has suggested, having a particularly detrimental impact on female students.

Universities cannot, and should not, try to manage the lives of students, but they do have a responsibility to protect those that feel vulnerable and to ensure that the student experience overall is positive. The NUS survey suggests it is time for institutions to take the issue seriously, and to look more closely at the student culture to ensure that it is not oppressive to any members of the community.

The hope must be that all those entering a university now will find that their time  there is not just educationally positive, but also enhances their experience of community life. Indeed that must be more than just a hope. It must be the intention.

By hand

August 26, 2014

It may be worth prefacing what I am about to write with the assurance that I am certainly not a technophobe. I have always been pretty much the first adopter of any technological innovation, ahead of anyone in my peer group. I was using a word processor in 1981, I had my first PC in 1983 (and my first Macintosh in 1986), I was on the internet in 1992 and was using an iPhone and an iPad and so in the very first wave.

Why am I protesting so much? Because what I want to suggest here is that one particular form of using technology may not be ideal: taking notes on a laptop or tablet. I had started doing this some time ago, and at meetings and discussions I was always there with my laptop, and later my iPad. Then one day I was at a meeting and had forgotten to bring any of this equipment. I borrowed a piece of paper from someone and started writing by hand; and suddenly found that I was paying more attention to the meeting and getting a better quality of written note. So since then I have gone back to taking notes on paper. I digitise it afterwards, but the actual note taking is by hand. Indeed, I have even managed to recover my one time ability to write fast, a talent that had been lost due to lack of use.

Now I find that my experience may reflect a broader truth.  A professor and one of his students at Princeton University have conducted a study that has revealed that students who take notes by hand on paper during classes perform much better at subsequent tests than those using computers to take notes. It seems that the mental processes are different and therefore produce different results.

These days as I sit at meetings I notice that, usually, I am the only one to write notes by hand (though I will have an iPad to consult meeting materials). Maybe it is time for all of us to re-discover handwriting. We might even resurrect the fountain pen.

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.


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