Universities: the senior salary spotlight

Posted December 12, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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Over recent weeks, the salaries of some university leaders have been in the spotlight, and in a manner not calculated to help universities in their necessary drive for wider public support as they pursue their mission. It is clearly a matter in which I have a vested interest, and so I shall not offer any detailed views of my own. It is however worth reading the comments – on both sides of the argument, if this is an argument – recently published in the letters pages of the Guardian newspaper.

While I don’t wish to comment, I would perhaps draw attention to the relevant section of the 2012 review, which I chaired, of higher education governance in Scotland. We recommended:

‘The panel … recommends that remuneration committees should include staff and student members. The work of the committee should be transparent, and in particular, the basis upon which pay is calculated should be published. … We also recommend there should be a standard format for reporting senior officer pay, and the [funding council] should publish these figures annually.’

As with most issues, there are clearly a number of factors to be taken into account in dealing with the appropriateness or otherwise of senior officers’ pay. But transparency and objective justification must at the very least be necessary elements of these processes. If they are not, it is not only the reputations of individual university leaders that will be tarnished, but also their institutions and, ultimately, the higher education sector.

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Thinking about the digital economy

Posted December 5, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: ethics, society, technology

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Some years ago when I was spending a morning in a somewhat obscure library in London looking for materials relevant to the development of a British trade union in the 19th century, I came across a sermon delivered shortly after 1800 in a London church. The clergyman in question was most exercised by what we would now call the impact of new technology. He feared that humanity’s ability to perform ‘miracles’, which should be the sole preserve of God, would create a materialistic society in which a very small number of people would reap the rewards of science and engineering, while the majority would become redundant and face destitution.

I was reminded of this recently when the US company Boston Dynamics, a spin-off from MIT, unveiled a humanoid robot that could jump up and down on various obstacles and, finally, do a back somersault. You can see the whole spectacle here. This display quickly led to a whole tsunami of online anguish about how we are all doomed. If a robot could successfully mimic an athlete, then humans might as well all just go home and wait to be put out of our misery by the new artificial master race. You get the idea.

As for me, I thought the Boston Dynamics machine was pretty smart engineering, but to be honest I was less captivated by it than by another recent item of news: a group of engineering researchers helped by an economist were able to design a robot which delivered a lecture to economics students and successfully answered questions from them at the end. Apparently the robot answered questions with stuff like ‘Well, this is a hotly contested point, but I tend myself to support the view that…’

Today, lots of people are talking about the digital economy and what it may involve and what it may do to us. The science and engineering of it all is of course important, but it may be as important for us to come to grips with what it all means: how it affects our understanding of humanity and human purpose. This isn’t a debate about automation; that’s a debate we’ve been having for 250 years, and to be honest there aren’t many new things to say. It’s a debate about who we are, and how we will harness human ingenuity, and how we can ensure that we evolve successfully to engage that ingenuity with the new means at our disposal.

Screen them out?

Posted November 28, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, technology

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One morning in 1986 I walked into a classroom in Trinity College Dublin to deliver one of my scintillating lectures. Just as I was about to start, the lecture theatre door opened and a student walked in carrying – no, I’ll say lugging – what turned out to be a so-called a ‘portable computer’. It was ‘portable’ in the sense that someone was carrying it, but if I remember correctly not without a lot of physical effort and perspiration. He then settled down, sort of, on a seat, and what ensued was a search for a socket so he could fire up the machine. This involved carrying the plug, which was at the end of a pleasingly long cable, to the not-quite-nearest wall where he had identified the presence of a source of power. He then switched on the device (though not before tripping over the cable on his way back). The device, we soon discovered, had an industrial-quality fan that managed to drown out various other noises coming from the floppy disk drive (5 1/4 inch of course). So settled in and visibly proud of this epoch-marking technological marvel, the student turned encouragingly to me to await my pearls of wisdom; and as I delivered them, the clicking of his keyboard was almost audible above the storm-force fan.

Yes, dear reader, you could say that was distracting. But it was also invigorating, as we all had a ringside seat as the new digital era was ushered in. And how far we have come since. My sister has just bought a laptop which, as far as I can make out, would fit easily into a modest document folder and which makes no noise whatsoever unless specifically asked to perform in this way. And of course you and I have all sorts of technology available to us, from phones that would put a 1986 mainframe computer to shame to tablets on which you can read the most extensive textbook while simultaneously listening to Taylor Swift. And all of these devices are in every classroom.

But not to everyone’s satisfaction. Susan Dynarski, Professor of Education, Public Policy and Economics at the University of Michigan, has had quite enough of laptops:

‘The best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens.’

She has concluded this on the basis of research carried out in two Canadian universities and, curiously, the United States Military Academy. This research, in summary, suggested that laptops stop students from learning effectively: not just the students using them, but anyone within a reasonable range. Other studies appear to support this conclusion.

It seems obvious enough to me that my student in 1986 was himself distracted and had a distracting effect on others, as would be the case if, say, someone entered a classroom on a motorbike. But the rest of this seems to me to be more arguable. What matters much more than the technology or the device is the attitude of the teacher and the engagement of the student. Technology is good if used well and bad if used badly. Achieving the former (beneficial) effect depends on the skill of the teacher and the approach to pedagogy. I suspect that the analysis of educational technology needs that a more elaborate consideration of what may constitute good practice. And by the way, during the same lecture in 1986 a student’s pen broke while he was writing sending ink through the air landing on his neighbour’s clothes. That was even more distracting, not least because his neighbour reacted slightly violently. Maybe they shouldn’t reach for their pens, either.

Earning your way?

Posted November 21, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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I am guessing that not all readers of this blog take their careers advice from the magazine Cosmopolitan. Nevertheless, if you did it has some things to tell you today: that you should avoid studying historical and philosophical studies, social studies (excluding economics), biological sciences,  education, English studies, psychology, communications (including media studies, journalism, and publishing), agriculture, and creative arts and design. None of these, Cosmo assures you, will make you rich, and their graduates typically earn less than those with other, different degrees.

It is a little difficult to know what Cosmopolitan actually wants us to conclude from this list: that money is bad; or that it is very good, but not available all who seek it? Is it that some of these courses have no merit? Or is the message that students should think entirely about their financial ambitions before signing on for any particular course, rather than, say, intellectual aptitude? Are anticipated salary figures the currency of student choice? Or maybe the message is that we, society, do not sufficiently value some subjects that contribute particularly to social, cultural and economic wellbeing. If the latter, it may be high time to think again.

Fearing the future

Posted November 14, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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If like me you enjoy science fiction or drama based in the future, you will of course be well used to the assumption that it’s all going to be terrible. The future is dystopian, flesh-eating zombies are everywhere, authoritarian régimes play with people’s lives, machines have perfected AI and have become totally malevolent, the UK leaves the EU. Trust me, if this is it you really don’t want to experience anything much beyond tomorrow lunchtime.

It’s all good fun of course, and none of those things may actually happen. And yet our futurology tells us much about who we are right now, and what we fear. Orwell’s 1984 was not really prediction or even a warning: it was an assessment of the world from the perspective of 1948.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many people were enthralled by visions of the future presented by the cartoonist Arthur Radebaugh, who in a series of images presented his idea of a world of the future which, interestingly, was quite prescient. A good few of his predictions have come true or may come true before long. Other would-be prophets may not always have been quite so good at telling the future. But the interesting thing is that most of the predictions, good or bad, have always been about how far technology will advance.

And in the universities, are we ready for the future, or do we fear it? The website fastcompany.com recently made what it described as ‘5 bold predictions for the future of higher education’. The common element in these predictions is the idea that we will continue to develop what we are developing now, but at a faster pace. Not one of these predictions is particularly ‘bold’.

So for those of us working on strategies for a future we don’t yet know for sure, what approach should we take? Should we apply a popular futurology approach and assume it’s going to be a dystopia for higher education, as much as for everyone else? Or should we just assume that it’s all going to be super-charged educational technology? Or is something more interesting than all that waiting for us? And how can we tell?

Of course education will adopt new technology, but that isn’t really the point of interest. The fascination a couple of years ago with MOOCs demonstrated a poverty of understanding of education. Education can be enhanced by method, but it isn’t about method. Rather it is about our understanding of knowledge, its uses and its values. This is the debate about the future that we need to have. Whether  the professor in a 2030 classroom is a robot hovering on a magnetic disc may be a fun topic of conversation but is totally irrelevant to the debate.

Re-discovering confidence in higher education

Posted November 6, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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I recently had a drink with a man who works for a think tank. I have known him for some time, as I gave him his first job, some years ago, in the university where I then worked. He enjoyed a promising academic career, and was promoted twice. But then he left university life. Why? Because, as he told me, it had become too depressing. The institutional culture had become toxic (to use his word), resources were never forthcoming to support the things he wanted to do, and the world outside had become increasingly critical of what universities did. Why, he asked, would anyone want to stay in that? Why be part of a system that was increasingly ill-at-ease with itself and the world it was in?

It is, you may think, the kind of message we hear all too often these days. And yet, his diagnosis of what was wrong was a little different. When he outlined his problems with ‘institutional culture’, he was not thinking of what people normally complain about: creeping managerialism or the excessive commercialisation of the academy. He was complaining about, well, the culture of non-stop complaining. Meetings, he said, were too often battlegrounds on which aggressive combatants targeted their enemies, both in the room and somewhere outside. External pressures were met with trench-warfare resistance rather than imagination and insight.

My friend’s key concern about higher education was that, in his view, it is a system that has lost confidence in itself; perversely, because actually it is doing rather well. But the drumroll of criticism has overpowered all the obvious signals of progress and innovation. It’s not that universities were failing, he suggested; it just wasn’t much fun any more to be there. And on top of that, he suggested, it had become increasingly difficult to voice your opinions.

The latter issue, that of free speech, has been raised in this blog on several occasions before. An anonymous academic writing recently for the Guardian‘s Higher Education Network blog, commented as follows:

‘For me, university is not a place where I can speak my mind. It is a place where I teach facts, present evidence and introduce a diverse range of other people’s attitudes. I seldom, if ever, make my personal opinions known, fearing accusations of bias and – ironically – of stifling free speech. It’s dehumanising to feel that I cannot be honest with my students.’

This, again – if the complaint is at all well founded – signals a culture in which intellectual creativity is stifled, sometimes by the system, sometimes by managers no doubt, sometimes even by students.

The common feature of all of this is a failure of confidence in the objectives and values of higher education, a reluctance to believe that what we do still matters and that academic idealism still has a place. It is no doubt hard to hold on to that when you feel under pressure and when you don’t recognise your values in the system in which you work. It is easy to slip into profound negativity; easy, but not good.

Now that it has become popular for populist commentators to criticise universities, it is the more important that the university community responds with a robust restatement of the importance of knowledge and learning; and that, internally, it behaves like a community with a common purpose and, externally, it presents an optimistic message for society.

Reformed thinking

Posted October 31, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, religion, university

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Exactly 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thereby setting in train the events that led to what is now referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’. The accumulation over a short period of time of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the printing press and widespread debate on issues raised in these processes changed western civilisation fundamentally and permanently.

Luther, like many of the leaders of the Reformation and for that matter many of those who opposed it, was not necessarily an altogether pleasant man. His strongly anti-semitic views gave a toxic prompt to some rabble rousers, with his influence stretching into 20th century fascism. But nevertheless, his actions opened up a new chapter of intellectual engagement and strengthened the position of Europe’s leading universities, as well as their capacity to engage in critical analysis and research – although Luther also opined that universities could be ‘the great gates of hell’.

Theologically, politically and socially, the Reformation was complex, and if it led to intellectual empowerment for some it also prompted narrow-mindedness in others. But the anniversary is worth celebrating, because our freedom of thought and of academic debate was reinforced through the posting of the 95 Theses and what followed. We are, in some respects at ;east, products of the Reformation.