Assessing the faculty mood

Posted February 21, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education


Surveys and polls of any kind and in any setting need to be read carefully and used appropriately; but they can be useful tools in informing strategy. So the recent Times Higher Education survey of UK university staff provides some interesting insights.

For those who believe that the academy is full of demoralised and cynical people who on the whole regret the career path they have taken, there is a maybe unexpectedly strong rebuttal in the survey: a total of 88 per cent agree or strongly agree that ‘my teaching is a source of satisfaction to me’, and only 1.8 per cent ‘strongly disagree’ with that proposition.

Also, while a significant majority believe that their institution values research more than teaching, about as many academics agree as disagree with the proposition that their teaching is ‘more rewarding’ than their research; and about one-third believe that their institution will promote staff on their teaching performance (a figure that is much higher than I would have expected).

Clearly the academic community is under pressure and worried about some developments and trends, but it also shows continuing signs of enthusiasm and creativity. But what academics do not like is the tendency to subject everything to formal assessment and ranking. On the whole they do not like the National Student Survey (NSS), and they are almost totally dismissive of the planned Teaching Excellence Framework: only 11 per cent think it will improve teaching quality.

But what the survey indicates is that this academic community, while sceptical about many of the changes it is experiencing in their working environment, is still keen to be active participants in the institutional journey; universities should welcome and encourage them in this journey.

Presidential image

Posted February 14, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, history, photography


Today is February 14, and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people associate this day with Saint Valentine. Although the saint’s name is today – and this day in particular – associated with romantic love and with the cajolery of the greeting card industry in particular, it is far from clear whether it is Valentine who should be attracting our attention today.

I’ll go instead for President James K. Polk, who was President of the United States between 1845 and 1849. On February 14 1849, during his final year in office, Polk was the first sitting US President to have his photograph taken – a daguerreotype taken in New York city. As an amateur photographer myself, I find this a really interesting moment of political and photographic history.

But one should not pass in the vicinity of President Polk without mentioning that he came into office unexpectedly, having offered to the electorate an ambitious set of goals which, over his four year term (he had promised to stand for one term only), he managed fully to achieve. One of the things he achieved was an expansion of the powers of the presidency.

Polk was what has been termed a ‘consequential’ president, in that his decisions and actions created change. He is mostly recognised for extending the borders of the US to the Pacific. But then again, his actions included a somewhat brutal war with Mexico, and he was himself also a slaveholder. He was at best a president with an ambivalent record in office.

His expansion of the United States from coast to coast may be his main claim to a place in history; but for me it is his photograph, taken on February 14 1849.


Living with semesters

Posted February 7, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , , ,

Most universities in the English-speaking world (though as we shall note, not all) organise their academic sessions into semesters.  A ‘semester’, just in case this needs to be explained, is according to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘a period or term of six months’. I point this out as a precaution to ward off those who might start talking about having three semesters in one year, a feat which could only be accomplished in another dimension in which a year had 18 months. And just to explain something else, a ‘trimester’ consists of three months, so that you could fit four (not just three) into a year.

If you were a student anywhere in these islands at about the same time as I was, then you would have been used to having your year split into ‘terms’. Generally universities would claim to have three terms in the year, but typically only two of these would be real functioning educational entities. The third would be for some sort of revision, updates and perhaps social revelry; it would in any case typically be shorter.

But even back then there was a different model of which many of us would have been aware. American universities had semesters (though not all), as had the Germans. But then we also heard about the then still quite new Stirling University and its use of modular programmes taught in semesters – an innovation which by the 1990s began to gain ground elsewhere in the UK. The University of Hull adopted semesterisation and modularisation in the mid 1990s while I worked there, and since then that is the only framework I have know, in the UK and Ireland.

The last university in Ireland to embrace semesters was Trinity College Dublin. Actually, ’embrace’ is too strong a word – it was more a stiff handshake. Semesters were introduced, but the College retained the old term-based nomenclature, and decided there would be no examinations of any kind at the end of the first semester. Now TCD is proposing to complete the change, but with some resistance from staff who, according to a report in the Examiner newspaper, think it will turn the university into a ‘second-rate polytechnic’.

I suspect some of the resistance is about a dislike of change and a wish to be seen in the same company as Oxford or Cambridge (which don’t have semesters). But it is worth asking whether the pedagogy of modular, semester-based programmes has been as much to the forefront of reform as it should have been. There is little doubt that any even modest attempt to pursue interdisciplinary formation is assisted by a modular structure; but this should be seen alongside a better understanding of what the real unit of knowledge should be in a contemporary university. Modules and semesters do give us the tools for modern learning and scholarship, but these tools are only useful if we know what we are building. Are we delivering bite-sized chunks of studying, or do we have a pedagogical concept of learning that underpins the structures? Many universities do have that concept, or vision, I think – but as a sector, I’m far less sure that we have ever explained this properly.

Universities and citizenship

Posted January 31, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society


For those of us whose understanding of political and social values may have taken something of a battering over the past week or so, here’s an interesting intervention from an American university president. Mark Schlissel, President of the University of Michigan, has suggested in an interview that a key task for higher education now is ‘how to teach citizenship in the age of fake news’. The idea that universities should promote responsible citizenship is not new, and for example this has been explored in a very interesting project coordinated by the University of Pennsylvania, the Universities as Sites of Citizenship and Civic Responsibility Project.

However, the aspect of citizenship that Dr Schlissel wants to address is that of understanding how to accumulate and assess information. This starts with ‘making a personal commitment to pay attention to what’s going on all around you in the body politic’ and then to get ‘good, reliable information’. Teaching students to make appropriate use of the information tsunami is now one of the top priorities, to move from the idea that every bit of published or asserted information has a claim to be as good as anyone else’s, to a position of being able to assess the credentials of what is out there. This is now the primary requirement of good citizenship.

Alongside that, Dr Schlissel wants academic scholars to step beyond a body of output addressing other scholars, and to offer their expertise to the wider community (and indeed politicians) to support the drive to responsible citizenship.

Much of the battle of ideas will now be about evidence, in an age where experts are treated with scepticism and highly dubious information is treated as valid. This is the territory where good citizenship, with the appropriate tools, needs to be rediscovered; and many of the tools are held by the higher education community.

Quid est veritas?

Posted January 24, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society, university


‘What is truth?” This is what Pontius Pilate is recorded as asking Jesus before the Crucifixion (John 18:38). In the millennia since then, politicians and philosophers have tried to supply answers, or at least further analysis. This has included considering whether truth should be assessed as a concept in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), which would address validity and evidence; or metaphysics (the theory of abstract concepts of being and knowing). The academic community more widely is charged with identifying truth, using available evidence to sustain or reject hypotheses. Truth is central to academic study and scholarship.

In the political field, this debate has just been given an unexpected prompt. Ms Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s special counsellor, suggested on the US television programme Meet the Press that when the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted on re-stating claims of easily rejected accuracy he was in fact providing ‘alternative facts’. The phrase, as many pointed out quickly, has significant Orwellian undertones, and must alarm anyone who feels that the interaction between politicians and the media is moderated by the production of evidence. But if Ms Conway’s philosophy holds sway, truth is neither knowledge nor belief (in that Mr Spicer cannot himself have believed the information he was peddling in the White House press briefing) but a matter of choice: the truth is what I tell you it is; its relationship with anything verifiable is not important.

In the run of human history, we have been here before. Now, as then, it is the duty of the academy to intervene, and to reinforce the integrity and importance of truth. There is an interesting task ahead, and one much more difficult (given the public mood) than any statement in a blog post may suggest. But very important.

Universities in the uncertain world of Brexit

Posted January 16, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics, university


There was never any doubt where the higher education sector stood on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Right from the start, Universities UK took a strong position in favour of the EU, and sponsored a campaign group entitled Universities for Europe. This almost certainly aligned with a widespread view amongst academics, as reflected indeed in guest posts in this blog.

But of course the UK electorate narrowly opted for Brexit, and it is now going to happen. But what that means for universities is still far from clear. The message from the academy hasn’t changed, and the theme still is that leaving the European Union will prove damaging and costly. Right after the vote, a senior Cambridge professor estimated that Brexit would cost his university around £100 million a year. Others have pointed to a whole list of potential issues, including staff recruitment, international student admissions, research funding, and so forth. Even an international university rankings website has regularly listed the issues arising from the referendum vote, all of them representing risks or disadvantages.

The question for universities now is how to handle this agenda. There may well be a risk that those needing to be influenced will find the flow of jeremiads to be uncongenial to the stimulation of second thoughts. There are no signs, for example, that the universities’ repeated warnings about the impact of immigration restrictions on the sector’s financial and cultural wellbeing have had any effect at all on the UK government.

The problem is, I think, that very little about Brexit is concerned with reasoned argument: it is more about emotion. It is the product of the fears of those who believe the integrity of their culture to have been compromised, who see sovereignty as an abstract ideal rather than a decision-making mechanism, who fear the impact of immigration. If your frame of reference is governed by abstract principle, then the technical or financial drawbacks of the project may not much interest you.

It may therefore be that those who are alarmed by the impending Brexit – and I am amongst them – need to recalibrate our language, and need to speak in terms of principle rather than of operational impact. This campaign may need to be re-thought.


Posted January 9, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: society

Tags: ,

Just over a year ago I offered some thoughts about what might make 2016 a satisfactory twelvemonth in my life. To be totally frank, looking back at that post I marvel at the banality of what I wrote, a little cocktail of the technical and the trivial at the beginning of a year; a year that had rather more ambition than that and was going to upset many of the expectations and hopes and assumptions of the circles I tend to move in. 2016 certainly did not bring success for Newcastle United, nor did it bury the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). It did however bring Brexit and President Trump, two developments that I didn’t at that point predict and which have eclipsed the more prosaic concerns I listed.

Maybe I belong to those who have indulged in what Boris Johnson has called a ‘whinge-o-rama’ as our preferences and aspirations were apparently shredded by popular vote. But these are moments when it is appropriate to explore again what we stand for, and why, and how we can work for success in what is now an undoubtedly different setting. Every watershed change in politics is in fact an invitation to explore ideas and to re-emphasise principle and clarity of thought, not expediency, as the driver of action.

So my hope for 2017 is that we, in the universities, can offer an effective forum for such an exploration, where all views can be aired and analysed and where the values of tolerance and rigour of debate can co-exist successfully.