Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage

Posted May 25, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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As most readers will undoubtedly know, Ireland voted on Friday last week on whether to amend the country’s Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937) to include in the article on the family the following sentence:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

As was widely reported, two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the amendment, thereby placing an obligation on the government and parliament (Oireachtas) to introduce legislation legalising and protecting same-sex marriage, alongside the continuing protection for heterosexual marriage.

The relatively decisive support given to gay marriage by the Irish voters is noteworthy, not least because the country has come a long way quickly. When I was an undergraduate student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s such a profound change would have seemed a very long way off, if indeed it seemed achievable in any timescale at all. However, TCD was probably the main hotbed for the emerging issue. One of its academic staff was David Norris, one of the few people at the time to have been brave enough to declare themselves gay and to bring the issue to the public’s attention. Back then the public was probably overwhelmingly hostile, but inside TCD David Norris was given the opportunity to make his case and to do so publicly.

Over the years that followed others in TCD, and other universities also, became vocal advocates for change. These included two academics destined to become Presidents of the state – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

It should not be thought that universities are dedicated exclusively to progressive liberal values, nor should it be assumed that every novel idea championed by an academic should one day reflect the outlook of our national community. But it is right that higher education institutions should host and nurture opinions not at the time fashionable in wider society, and to protect those who wish to express unpopular views. In this case the big and welcome change last week carried through by Irish voters was made possible by the courage and persistence of academics, and by the university culture that gave them space to play their role. May this always be possible.

The end of the business school?

Posted May 18, 2015 by universitydiary
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University business schools are sometimes even better known than their parent universities. Of course everyone knows about Harvard University, but Harvard Business School is probably mentioned even more in conversation and discourse. In relative terms business schools are a recent development in higher education. Many people assume it was an American invention, but actually the United States came late to the party. The first business schools, dedicated specifically to teaching business or commerce courses, emerged in France from the early 19th century, and then spread to other European countries. It was not until 1881 that the first American Business School – the Wharton School of Pennsylvania University – opened its doors. Though Wharton declares on its website that it was the first globally, in reality it wasn’t. Britain had its first business school in 1902.

But the real surge of business schools occurred somewhat later, from the 1960s onwards, and even in the past decade new schools were still being established. Some of these were stand-alone institutions not affiliated to any bigger university; some have had a semi-autonomous status in association with a university; some are integrated Faculty units.

The rise of the business school was accompanied by the rise of its flagship educational programme, the Master of Business Administration (MBA). This was an American invention, with the first one set up by Harvard Business School in 1908. The MBA did not appear anywhere outside the United States until after the Second World War. But by the 1980s it was ubiquitous, the most common taught postgraduate degree in the world, and also a uniquely profitable programme offered at a relatively low cost. Whole universities began to rely on the revenues from business schools and their MBAs.

But from about 2000 voices began to be heard predicting the decline of the MBA, and with it the decline of business schools. By the time the downturn and recession came later in the decade, such voices became more urgent. In 2009 the New York Times ran an article by Kelley Holland suggesting that MBA programmes may actually have contributed to the economic crisis as business schools had ‘become too detached from real world issues’. And now more recently others have come forward suggesting that a significant number of business schools may actually fail. The Dean of the Haas Business School at Berkeley has predicted the ‘demise’ of half of the world’s 10,000 business schools.

There is little doubt that a number of things are potentially conspiring to make the future of business schools more uncertain: technology, demographics, economics, and changes in how companies see the career development of their managers. It is also clear that the MBA is not the gold standard of business education that it once was. However, predictions of its complete disappearance have not come true, and to some extent it is a more resilient product than some have expected.

What can be seen however is that there is no longer a single model for a business school; but maybe there never was. Some focus on postgraduate or indeed executive education, some are integrated and include all levels of formation and training. But one trend that may be emerging is the disappearance of stand-alone business schools, not associated with any larger university.

Business schools need to be part of the strategic model of a parent university, and need to share that parent’s educational, scholarly and pedagogical perspective. Business schools will always be expected to make money, but they need to have a vision that goes beyond a financial model. With that vision, business schools, in all their variety, may be with us for some time yet.

Is the accessible university an unwelcoming one?

Posted May 12, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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Ever since higher education ceased to be the classroom of the elite, questions have been raised from time to time about how accommodating universities are to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of these students will not have attended schools in which a degree is seen as the natural culmination of a young person’s formation, they will have grown up in families in which there is no experience of (and sometimes not much sympathy for) university life, they will have peers and role models whose success (where that has been achieved) will often owe little to any programme of study. So what impact do such students have on the university, and how will the university appear to them in turn?

One university warned in 2012 that requiring it to admit access students might force it to ‘lower its academic standards'; more recently the same university suggested, according to a newspaper report, that ‘moves to recruit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is discriminating against the middle classes’.

In America there are sometimes still more robust criticisms of initiatives to bring the disadvantaged into higher education. A conservative website recently argued that ‘intellectual damage’ is inflicted by ‘forcing the university to admit academically ill-prepared minority students’ – in this case using a survey conducted by the University of Illinois-Urbana.

What all this shows is that the case for inclusive higher education needs to be made and regularly re-made. Of course universities need to trade in intellectual excellence, but there is very little evidence that when they mainly educated the social elite their capacity for scholarship and discovery was greater. There is in fact very little evidence to back the suspicion that access students lower standards; in my experience they often outperform those from a more traditional higher education background.

Non-traditional students from disadvantaged backgrounds will only be problematic if the system does not properly support them. They have the same intellectual capacity for curiosity and scholarship, but need to be supported in nurturing and developing it. A higher education system that wants to include greater numbers of access students needs to have the resources to support these, a point that is not always understood by policy-makers. But given such resources, universities will find that these students will enrich their intellectual life and create a body of graduates who will both thrive in their careers and lives and be particularly loyal supporters of their alma mater. Access is not just a good cause, it is an enriching one.

What’s in a word?

Posted May 5, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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Readers of this blog will be familiar with the travails of universities considering the desirability of a name change. Trinity College Dublin, a little while ago, toyed with the idea of calling itself ‘Trinity College the University of Dublin’ (assuming their business cards could be widened to fit all that in); it later, after a lot of negative feedback, changed its mind. King’s College London toyed with the idea of calling itself ‘King’s London’, another perhaps somewhat daft idea apparently abandoned. And more recently, the University of Akron in Ohio reportedly considered a name change to Ohio Polytechnic Institute; that such a change could be desirable will baffle university people in Britain, but in the United States the term ‘Polytechnic’ has a positive meaning, suggesting in particular an institution close to industry.

But that’s not my point in this post.

The anticipated change has drawn a hostile response from many quarters, in particular alumni and staff. It is the response of one of these academics that has shocked me far more than the name change:

‘Myself and a lot of my colleagues came to this university for a job because it was a full-fledged university, not because it is a polytechnic.’

Really? ‘Myself and a lot of my colleagues’? I am amazed that a senior academic would produce such grammatical nonsense. I know full well that the rules of grammar are increasingly dead, but surely in Akron they can say, without needing a patronising university president like me to prompt them: ‘Many of my colleagues and I came to this university.’

The right time to make an enlightened career choice?

Posted April 27, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Young people today go through various stages of their educational formation at which they, or someone on either behalf, make choices that will have a clear effect on the trajectory of their careers. At school they decide which subjects to take or keep taking – they lose mathematics, they lose a whole array of potential choices. They choose a university, they choose a course. And before they have any real experience of life they have often painted themselves into a corner of life from which they can no longer escape.

This has become so complex that ever more detailed advice needs to be given at an ever earlier age – as was done by the Russell Group of UK universities in a guide to post-16 subject choices:

‘It is really important that students do not disadvantage themselves by choosing a combination of subjects at A-level which will not equip them with the appropriate skills and knowledge for their university course or which may not demonstrate effectively their aptitude for a particular subject.’

Do we force specialisation on students too early, and do we help them to make intelligent choices? One contribution to this debate was made recently by the Chief Executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, who in a debate in Trinity College Dublin on enlightenment values suggested the following:

‘It is hardly in line with principles of the Enlightenment to force students into narrower and narrower subject choice options and deny them a broad first year experience with a focus on developing critical thinking and analytical skills.’

It is an interesting comment, but it is set against a backdrop of trends not in keeping with the ideal; and in particular, the trend to shorten higher education programmes – which in turn makes it much more difficult to have a liberal arts approach to the early stages of higher education – and the trend of turning secondary schools into the ante-chamber of higher education, rather than a forum for intellectual formation in its own right, using its own principles.

There is of course no single correct answer to the question in the title. But there are some wrong answers. Fording specialisation on young people at too early an age is one of them; not least because if we do so, the choices will often not be made by them, but for them. And that is wrong.

Is it all about networking?

Posted April 21, 2015 by universitydiary
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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.


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