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.

50 shades of sexism in the academy

Posted March 5, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, University of Dundee

In a blog post entitled We have come a long way but…, Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University with an interest in matters of equality and diversity, while recognising the success of the Athena project launched back in 1999 and of the Athena Swan Charter, also acknowledges how too many departments still think that Athena Swan means ‘high profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department’.

As a sign of how successful the Athena brand has become the Charter, originally limited to STEM subjects, will be expanding later this year to include arts, humanities, social science, business and law departments. Some pilot schemes in the humanities have already been carried out last year; of particular interest is the report just released by the Royal Historical Society, where concern is expressed ‘about a macho work culture of intense competition and peer pressure, with no interest in a good work/life balance, in the context of a sector-wide climate of continually raised expectations of achievement in research, publication and grant-winning.’

Ireland is following suit with the launch on February 5th of an Athena SWAN pilot open to all publicly funded universities and institutes of technology. NUI Galway is taking a lead on the issue of gender equality by setting up an independent taskforce; however as retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness writes in the Irish Times, the issue of gender discrimination ‘is not unique to traditional sectors such as higher education or even to Ireland.’ This is sadly true. In fact according to a recent World Economic Forum report not one country has fully closed the gender gap yet (the UK has dropped from 9th to 26th place since 2006), and it will take 81 years for the worldwide gap to close if progress continues at the current rate.

Back to academia. An analysis by Thomson Reuters in association with Times Higher Education in 2013 demonstrated startling levels of gender inequality in research-intensive universities across the world. In the UK the Equality Challenge Unit’s statistical report for 2014 on Equality in Higher Education showed a persistent pay gap median of 13.6% between male and female academics, a decline in uptake and duration of maternity leave, few opportunities for part-time working across the whole higher education sector and the continued dominance of men in senior roles. Specifically, only 14% Vice-Chancellors and Principals are female, only 20.5% of professors are female, and in 2013 only 15 professors were BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) women.

On a positive note, one might celebrate the fact that more women are now reaching middle management and yet, as Tara Brabazon notes in her sobering piece Generation X Women and Higher Education:

‘These posts manage teaching staff, workload, timetabling and assessment: the ‘housework’ of universities…female academics into middle management is not the clean victory it appears. The structures have not changed. The assumptions about teaching ‘value’ have not altered.’

What is also troubling is that female academics remain very reluctant to bring cases over career progression or gender discrimination. This, according to Joan Donegan, deputy general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, is mostly due to isolation and lack of confidence.  In the UK I recall the case of Liz Schafer, a Professor at Royal Holloway who took legal action over her employer’s ‘scandalous’ professorial pay gaps.

Perhaps it is not so shocking that, as the author of a study on sexism in academia reveals, she had to find a way to tell women’s stories, without any hint of those women being identifiable, so afraid were they of negative repercussions. I think that there is enough evidence to attest that universities have a gender equality problem, one which is not ‘natural’ but – ironically, given the business universities are in – ‘cultural’. The question is how to solve it without waiting 81 years for the gender gap to close.

The first step is to acknowledge the problem, to talk about it in public fora like this one. Secondly, universities must not become complacent, they must be aware of the ever-present risk that policies and programmes (like the Athena Swan) aimed at addressing equality and diversity issues may become substitutes for action. Thirdly, conscious, structured, institutional efforts are needed to counteract unconscious and unintentional gender biases.

As judge Catherine McGuinness rightly put it in the opinion piece cited above, ‘systemic problems require systemic and not localised solutions’, hence corrections need to be built into our systems. Such corrections can include training, mentoring, leadership programmes, and as the Equality and Diversity in the REF: Final report advocates:

‘Funding bodies should consider more explicitly assessing measures to promote and support equality and diversity, as part of the research environment element of a future REF exercise.’

Lastly, quotas can be, even on a temporary basis, the corrections we need. Personally, I am persuaded by the research in this field, for example by the work of Curt Rice and Louise Davidson- Schmich. Significantly, one of the recommendations of the review of higher education governance in Scotland, chaired by the host of this blog in 2012  was that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim. A synergy between universities and governments can deliver results, as the Flemish gender action plan shows.

In conclusion, the reader may have noted of course that the title of this post echoes the one of a popular erotic romance novel. This is no cheeky choice: as the writings of generations of gender studies scholars like Andrea Dworkin or novelists like Angela Carter have argued, sexuality and power converge to create masterful societal narratives, hence old romantic fantasies of dominant men happen to coexist, in our sexually saturated culture, with highly successful examples of macho management and leadership. The risk is that the permanence of similar models will tie women down far more than any rope ever could, trapping them forever in universities’ ‘ivory basements’.

Coming to grips (or not) with tuition fees

Posted March 3, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

From the frequency with which politicians present promises or assurances over tuition fees before elections, we must assume that they believe that fees are an issue that can help improve a party’s electoral fortunes. Nick Clegg in England, Ruairi Quinn in Ireland, Alex Salmond in Scotland have all made emphatic statements or vows that they would not allow fees to be introduced or increased. This all but destroyed Nick Clegg, and caused Ruairi Quinn some serious problems in government. Only Alex Salmond was able to use it to advantage, though it is hard to say whether it has made any difference in actual votes for the SNP.

And now Ed Miliband has got in on the act. Under his leadership the UK Labour Party has promised to reduce the maximum tuition fee English universities can charge from the current £9,000 to £6,000, to be funded by curtailing pension tax relief for those on higher pay. As was quickly pointed out, this won’t help anyone very much other than graduates on higher incomes, and it seems even senior Labour politicians were sceptical about the benefits of the promise. Indeed it is striking that, given the high profile the Labour Party originally gave to the announcement, by yesterday it was not visible anywhere on the ‘issues’ page of the Party’s website.

It continues to be my view that the British government’s tuition fee policy is wrong-headed: as everyone including the government itself assumes, a significant part (perhaps the majority) of the debt run up by students under the loan scheme will never be repaid, leaving a major funding problem a little further down the road. None of that would be made any better by the Miliband promise, the only real impact of which may be to make insecure a significant part of university funding – including funding in Scotland, as it happens.

It is almost certainly good advice to politicians to leave this matter alone during election time. University funding is something that will be better handled by thoughtful analysis and discussion. The key issues are the adequacy of funding to secure international competitiveness, inclusive access to higher education, and the autonomy of institutions. These are more sensibly addressed in an atmosphere that is not distorted by the noise of the electoral marketplace.

I strongly doubt that Ed Miliband’s initiative will help him get into 10 Downing Street.

Professorial elitism

Posted February 24, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society, university


An interesting study undertaken recently in the United States found that over half of all tenured university lecturers in a very large sample were graduates of just ’18 elite universities’ (which in the US would be a tiny proportion of the university sector as a whole). The study concluded that access to higher education was firmly established across the country, but:

‘… Most universities are not very successful at generating professors, and most people only get doctorates because they intend to go into academia. Should these lower-prestige institutions even bother granting PhDs at all?’

There are various observations and assumptions in all of this, and they are worth analysing. First, the assumption is that people who do PhD research are generally intending to be academics. Secondly, the study observes that a small number of elite universities educate most academics. Finally, this means that the academy, as distinct from the population it teaches, is hugely elitist.  If these assumptions are correct, and moreover if they are also correct for other higher education sectors beyond the United States, they should give us some cause for concern.

I am not aware of any similar study in the UK or Ireland, but it would not be excessively difficult to undertake. I would not claim to have done anything scientific, but I have taken three universities, two in the UK and one in Ireland, and have looked at a sample of their academic staff to see what the position might be. My initial impression (and I can hardly claim more than that) is that we don’t have the same phenomenon this side of the Atlantic. All three universities would be considered to be in the middle range rather than ‘elite'; in all three a significant proportion of academics are graduates of the institution they now teach in, followed by a group who are graduates of what one might call similar institutions. Of the 100 academics I sampled across the institutions, only three were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. In fact Harvard and Stamford were better represented.

What am I concluding? First, that it might be interesting to do a more scientific study of our universities. Secondly, that if the higher education sector is to have any kind of cohesion and if it is to be successful at underpinning a reasonably egalitarian society, there should be a reasonable spread of universities whose graduates teach and research across all institutions. This is so in part because any move towards elitism will not just stay as intellectual elitism, it will quickly be social (or socio-economic) elitism also.

This is an issue to watch.

So what makes a university?

Posted February 17, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

Tags: ,

As Ireland continues to struggle with the not very well thought out idea of ‘technological universities’ – now under fire because the somewhat daft requirement for candidate institutions to merge with others first is producing unexpectedly high costs – and England works on for-profit university institutions, new universities are also being created in the United States. The latest upgrade is what was the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, now to be Stockton University.

What is interesting about the announcement of its new status is that it is being described as a ‘comprehensive’ university, which in turn is explained by the institution itself as follows:

‘Comprehensive universities emphasize teaching, as opposed to research universities, which place more emphasis on faculty members’ research being published in refereed journals and books for promotion and tenure.’

So what is it that makes a university a university? If Stockton College continues to do as Stockton University what it did before, what will be the significance of the change, and how is its appropriateness assessed? And to what extent do we (or should we) regard research as the calling card of a university?

It is not just in America that the answers to these questions may not be altogether clear. And of course there is no reason to think that only one model of university is legitimate. Nevertheless, if we are to protect the concept and brand of a ‘university’, we need to have a clear idea of what that is. And I’m not sure we do.


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