Is it all about networking?

Posted April 21, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university


Right at the beginning of my academic year, when I was a new lecturer in an illustrious academic institution, an older colleague pulled me aside at a faculty reception and said, ‘I’m now going to give you the most important higher education lesson you’ll ever get’. And so for the next five minutes I sat next to him as he pointed one by one to everyone in the room and classified each one either as a ‘scholar’ or a ‘networker'; because, as he insisted, you could not be both.

He was I think aiming to recruit me to the ranks of what he considered to be scholars, and I guess that right now he is hugely disappointed in me, because he probably thinks I became a networker par excellence. In fact, is that really what a university head is – a networker, and nothing much else? You might almost think so from a piece written by two American university presidents in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently. Looking to give advice to new presidents, they suggest the following:

‘…Perhaps the single most important lesson that we can pass on to new university presidents is the indisputable importance of building and fostering relationships.’

Then they spell out which relationships need to be fostered, which it turns out is every possible relationship you could imagine, with absolutely everyone.

I am not ashamed of my skills as a networker. If we want to understand the society we live in and if we want to change it for the better, we have to be networkers. But networking is a means, not an end, and to put it to good use you have to understand and contribute to the larger scholarly purpose. So, the really good leader in the academy is both a networker and a scholar.

Gender in higher education: the contribution of governance

Posted April 14, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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As a guest post on this blog recently explored, and as I’ve also noted previously, the higher education scene is not necessarily one of good practice in relation to gender equality. Women make up an increasingly large proportion of the academic community overall, but are still seriously under-represented in senior positions.

However it is not just employment practices in universities that deserve scrutiny, but also governance. In the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12, we found that women were not well represented on governing bodies, and as a result we made the following recommendation:

‘The panel therefore recommends that each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.’

This was picked up in the Code of Good Governance issued by the Committee of Scottish Chairs in July 2013, which included a wider principle of respect for equality and diversity, and a specific reference to equality goals for the independent membership of governing bodies:

‘The governing body, having due regard to applicable law, shall establish appropriate goals and policies in regard to the balance of its independent members in terms of equality and diversity.’

The chairs have now extended this commitment in a policy statement issued this month, with the following commitment:

‘[The chairs of governing bodies] will aim to achieve, on a timescale which may vary according to the circumstances of each Institution, a minimum of 40 percent of each gender among the independent members of the governing body; and will measure success by the extent to which this has been achieved for the sector by 2018.’

The commitment does not cover members elected by staff or students or nominated by external stakeholders, though these are encouraged to address the diversity commitment also.

How significant is this as an issue? I am pleased to say that since we assessed Scottish governing bodies in 2011 there has been some improvement. Most university governing bodies now have 30 per cent or more women members. The best in class is the University of Edinburgh, 51 per cent of whose Court members are women. A number of governing bodies (including my own) now have women chairs (of whom there were none previously). Scotland may be fact be out-performing other systems in these islands. A significant number of English universities score below 25 per cent, and most of the better performers are in the 30-35 per cent range. The same is true of Ireland, with Trinity College Dublin however managing 41 per cent (in what is largely an internal membership). The National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), which recently has been in the spotlight for gender equality reasons, has a governing body 36 per cent of whose members are women.

Of course gender (and indeed diversity more generally) is not the only criterion to apply, but it is important, if we want to say with any credibility that universities are representative of the wider population and its aspirations, that governing bodies reflect this understanding. There is still some way to go, but there has been progress.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the criticism that the university establishments have tended to direct at my governance review, it is gratifying to see that we have had a perceptible impact.

Value in bad-tempered dissent?

Posted April 7, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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A few years ago I was visiting an American university as the guest of its President. We were having a cup of coffee in a faculty cafeteria when a middle aged man walked in. The President turned to me and whispered, ‘This man is the scourge of my life. He publicly states his disagreement with everything I say and do. He turns up at every meeting and criticises my plans. I have devoted more nervous energy to this man than to the entire university community put together; and I resent it.’ It was a very striking and passionate statement from what I had hitherto experienced as a very even-tempered man.

But actually the President’s nemesis was not that unusual a member of the cast of dramatis personae of the academy. In fact, a whole article has recently been devoted to the ‘curmudgeons’ of higher education (in this case American community colleges). The author defined curmudgeons as follows:

‘They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.’

Respondents in this study overwhelmingly found the influence and impact of such curmudgeons to be negative. Some curmudgeons themselves argued otherwise, suggesting that they played an important role in restraining institutional heads as they sought to implement every new flavour of the month (or the ‘latest snake oil’ as one put it).

Of course, any university head who is honest will accept that there is genuine value in dissent, not least because it sharpens up strategy and ensures closer analysis of plans and strategies. Dissent is also in the end part of the intellectual academic tradition and should be recognised as such. However, in some cases curmudgeons, seeing the stress they can cause, become self-important and, occasionally, bullies. Some begin to see causing offence as the end rather than the means.

It is important that universities accept, respect and encourage critical thinking, when applied to corporate strategy as much as when applied to intellectual propositions. Curmudgeons, on the other hand, would do well to show respect to fellow members of the university, even where they disagree with them.

Higher education uncertainties

Posted March 31, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university


It has been said before in this blog, but this is a time of peculiar uncertainty, and therefore unpredictability, in higher education. In some systems, such as the English one, there appears to be a drift towards a largely private system – mostly not-for-profit, but with some for-profit institutions participating – from which the state has largely disengaged itself, except for a regulatory role. Other systems (like most European ones, and indeed Scotland) rely heavily on the taxpayer as the sole or main funder; but as public money comes under pressure, and the state has more direct requests of higher education notwithstanding the withdrawal of funding support, the robustness of this model becomes more questionable.

What governments and other stakeholders (including students) expect of higher education is also not always clear; but predominantly expectations appear to focus on the practical services that universities can provide to society. A recent report published by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority summarised the higher education mission as follows:

‘A strongly performing education system means that employment opportunities are maximised for individuals and communities; doing business is attractive for companies of all types, and there is a strong basis for a progressive, prosperous economy and society. Higher education provides the pipeline of highly-skilled graduates in an economy; it offers a dynamic research and development function to support industrial innovation and expansion; and it is a primary resource for vital re-skilling and up-skilling of the workforce.’

In the meantime a senior researcher in an American think tank, Kevin Carey, has suggested that many higher education institutions may not be able to adapt and survive in the changing landscape. He said this of today’s universities:

‘Historically, they have been among the most resilient of all human institutions. Many have troves of educational resources that can be used to adapt and thrive in the coming transition to technology-enabled education. Some will manage that journey successfully, others won’t. I do believe that the number of [universities] that go under will be much larger over the next 30 years than in the previous 30, and that those that survive will need to change their organizational models fundamentally.

The answer to all of this is of course that there is no one answer. There has for some time not been a single model for universities, and today’s changes in technology, demography and pedagogy will produce more variety rather than uniformity. This is a good thing, provided that the various models in play can be understood by and justified before the general public and its representatives. In this setting, universities themselves need to become less opportunistic and more principled, setting out clearly what their mission is and how this can support society’s needs, and then acting in line with that mission.

Today’s greater levels of scepticism surrounding higher education require a much better communication by universities of what they are all about: not what all of them are all about, but what they mean to do individually or in groups. In reality, we no longer have one singly higher education system; we have several. It would be a step forward to recognise that publicly.

Too much higher education?

Posted March 24, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

Tags: , ,

In many develop countries it has been government policy for some time to secure growing levels of participation in higher education. While I was President of Dublin City University the Irish government had a target participation rate of over 60 per cent. In the United Kingdom, under Tony Blair, the target was 50 per cent. Going for high targets is the ultimate destination in the process of ‘massification’, under which universities have ceased to be educators of the elite only and have opened their doors to those who would not in previous generations have considered this to be an accessible, appropriate or affordable route.

But not everyone thinks this is necessarily the right policy. Last year the founder of the Virgin group of companies, Richard Branson, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper:

‘Ten years ago it felt as though teenagers in Britain were being told that university was the be all and end all, whereas in reality higher education wasn’t of use to many of those paying for it.’

Branson felt that, in particular, the rush for everyone to go to university was threatening to deprive the country and the economy of people with vital skills, particularly digital skills of importance to the IT sector. These skills he felt were generally not acquired in universities, but through other forms of vocational training. This trend, if not arrested, would endanger relevant industry investment.

In other accounts, it has been suggested (in this case in the Daily Telegraph) that too many young people were being cajoled into university; and some of them would find that higher education didn’t suit them, and they would drop out.

Of course there are other issues wrapped up in this discussion, including the question of how ‘vocational’ a university education should or should not be (and therefore whether universities can or should provide some of the skills the economy may be at risk of lacking). There is the question of the ‘social value’ of higher education, and whether those not experiencing it will be, or will mostly be, relatively disadvantaged. But it may well be time to ask the question of how far university education can, or should, go.

So, when it come to university courses, are some professions more equal than others?

Posted March 17, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

Tags: , ,

Irish readers of this blog will be well familiar with the complaint – and it’s an entirely justified complaint – that the so-called ‘points system’ that attaches a value to the final school (Leaving Certificate) examination results has created a completely false ‘market’ in university entry to different courses. If you want to do medicine or law you have to achieve very high points. If you wan to study computing, you need far fewer points. So, the apparent judgement is you need to be much cleverer to be a lawyer than to be a computer programmer. Speaking as a lawyer, I can categorically say that this makes no sense.

But the problem is not unique to Ireland. A senior Scottish academic, Professor Alan Gilloran of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, has now been reported as saying that ‘that society should reconsider how it views different professions’ and has called for a re-think of established hierarchies in terms of jobs. He has suggested, more specifically, that the high entry requirements for medical studies are not reasonable, because medicine ‘is plumbing, for God’s sake’.

Whether we would agree with this assessment of medicine or not, there is an important point in all of this. We need to ensure that the perceived social status of a particular profession does not – or no longer – govern the academic expectations we have of students. Society’s needs should not be made subject to social aspirations. Right now we need more engineers, biotechnologists, computer programmers, mathematicians; and these are the careers into which we should be enticing the brightest and best of the younger generation.

A government plot to seize control? No.

Posted March 10, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university


This post first appeared in The Conversation on 5 March 2015

In British university leadership circles, one particular view has become commonplace: that any and all higher education legislation is prima facie an attack on institutional autonomy and a statement of intent by government to micro-manage the system. The debate sometimes doesn’t get as far as assessing the details of the legislation: the act of legislating on its own is unacceptable, irrespective of content.

There are shades of this in the responses to the Scottish government’s planned higher education legislation. For example one of the government’s proposals is to provide in a new statute that the position of university principal should be identified (but not named) as “chief executive officer”. That has been described by representatives of one university, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph, as a “telling and very worrying indication of the degree of control over universities that is being sought”. That response and comment could reasonably be described as particularly bizarre, since a clarification of an executive role gives no opportunity of any kind for government intervention or control.

The truth is, of course, that legislation in this or any sphere is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It depends on the purpose and content of any proposed regulation.

Nor is this in any way restricted to higher education. The UK has an extensive framework of companies legislation, regulating corporate organisation and action – yet few would suggest that this interferes with the freedom of companies to trade independently. The question is not whether legislation is unacceptable per se, but whether it reflects and protects a legitimate public interest without interfering improperly in autonomy.

The Scottish government’s proposals are intended to implement recommendations made in 2012 by the review that I chaired on higher education governance. The report made it clear that institutional autonomy should be a key principle of the higher education framework, alongside academic freedom. But we also recommended that there should be a regulatory framework that assured transparency and openness and gave due recognition to the interests of the stakeholders in higher education. Universities are autonomous bodies, and should be. But their autonomy should not shield them from legitimate expectations that they engage with staff, students and external partners, or from the need to behave in an accountable manner.

None of this is about government control. None of our recommendations, and indeed none of the proposed elements of the government’s planned legislation, would give any power to ministers to interfere in the running of institutions. Indeed the government has made it clear that it has no wish to exercise any such powers.

It is of course perfectly in order to have a debate on the merits of the legislative proposals, and there is nothing wrong with people being sceptical about the details. But it is also right to expect that the assessment of these proposals should be based on analysis and evidence, and should wherever possible avoid hyperbole.


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