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


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.

Autumnal mood

Posted October 26, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: photography

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Autumn is a strange season – with great beauty, but also with dark moods as winter approaches. Here is my interpretation through photos of the fruit harvest.

It was, in fact, a very good harvest for apples and pears this year – more than I could process or even give away, so some are now compost.

Brexit perspectives in the academy

Posted October 25, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, university

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Apparently like all university heads in the United Kingdom, I received a letter this week from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a Conservative Whip in the House of Commons and, as his own website states, a ‘fierce Eurosceptic’. In his letter, Mr Heaton-Harris asks me to supply him with the names of professors ‘who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also wants copies of any syllabus and links to online lectures ‘which relate to this area’. The letter gives no indication of why he wants this information or what he proposes to do with it.

The story of this letter has been widely disseminated over the past day or so, and it would be fair to say that he has been roundly criticised for sending it by pretty much everyone, including some who are in favour of Brexit. As a Times newspaper editorial points out, if Mr Heaton-Harris had legitimate reasons, unrelated to any desire to stifle pro-EU voices in the academy, he should have said what they were. In the absence of such details, the fierce Eurosceptic might appear to have motives to limit freedom of expression – though he himself is adamant that this is not his intention (while still not saying what is his intention). Meanwhile the UK Universities Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP, has spoken on his behalf to suggest that he now regretted sending the letter.

Anyway, yesterday the airwaves and cyberspace were full of people expressing indignation at Mr Heaton-Harris, who, it was suggested, was practising ‘Leninism’. Actually I doubt that Vladimir Ilyich, were he to return now, would regard Mr Heaton-Harris as a soulmate, so maybe we should leave some of the more over-excited responses to his letter to one side. I suspect he was indeed up to no good, but I’m not too worried about his capacity to achieve much.

But Mr Heaton-Harris is not the only star in this particular B-movie. He was preceded by others, politicians, and newspapers, who have argued that in one way or another expressions of opinion criticising Brexit or calling for a continuing membership of the UK in the European Union are not acceptable and undermine the will of the people (which by now may be different from that expressed in June 2016, for all we know). And so while we should all calm down about the MP’s letter, we should reflect a little more about a tendency to incite a public mood of intolerance that may be showing up here. Specifically, a university must always be a safe forum for the expression of all legal views and opinions, however unpopular they may be; and this should not be put at risk either by politicians or, indeed, by groups of students. But more generally, Brexit advocates – even Brexit fanatics – must accept that their views have not become mandatory as a result of the referendum. Freedom of expression must flower, no matter what. And if that bothers you, it means that your position is probably a weak one. Work on that.

The curriculum vitae – time to let it go?

Posted October 23, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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Writing in the Times newspaper, columnist Clare Foges suggested this week that ‘ditching the CVs would level the playing field a bit’ when it comes to recruitment for employment. It would, she suggested, in particular reduce the unwarranted advantage that graduates of Oxford and Cambridge get when their applications are seen by senior managers who are also graduates of these august institutions.

Over my 30 or so years in leadership positions of one kind or another in universities I have read goodness knows how many CVs (or resumés) when I have taken part in employment selection processes. Highlighted information about where the applicants got their degrees always tends to be the most immediately visible part of the personal sales pitch. In a recent case, one job applicant listed three degrees he had been awarded. The first – and this was awarded for his actual work as a student – was from a very well respected but fairly new university; it was not particularly highlighted. The other two were from one of the two aforementioned institutions and were recorded in bold print with a slightly larger typeface than the surrounding narrative. He knew I have a degree from Cambridge (OK OK, I shouldn’t mention that, but I’m not looking for a job) and maybe thought I should feel a strong affinity with him; or maybe he didn’t know and thought that, as head of a newish university, I should be most impressed by his pedigree and his willingness to condescend to apply to our modest institution.

Whatever. He didn’t get the job. But all over the academic world, and everywhere else, people use their CVs to make a sales pitch, and sometimes this can take on the form of some sort of masonic handshake between applicant and recruiter. So is it time to stop using CVs in recruitment processes? Is it time to test instead for specific skills, experiences and attributes that would qualify candidates, without allowing prejudices about various categories of institution to determine outcomes? Can it be done?