Diversifying the university ‘business’

Posted February 1, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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While some of the most prominent universities internationally have an array of activities that include teaching, research, consulting, managing intellectual property and so forth, and while their financial accounts often reflect this diversity, overwhelmingly most universities are heavily dependent on income from one particular activity and one source of revenue: teaching undergraduate students, funded by the state. In this role universities are public agencies providing a vitally important and strategic service to national goals.

But they are also financially highly vulnerable. Their organisational health depends on the ability of their key funder to keep increasing their income in line with both inflation and the university’s strategic development goals – but almost no state can guarantee that kind of financial stability, and pressures on public money will quite regularly force governments to cut higher education funding, usually moving the funding baseline downwards as they do so. In the meantime the reliance on teaching prevents the institutions from developing a high profile reputation globally, which is really only achievable through high value research. Therefore a teaching-focused university threatened by public funding pressures has little with which to market itself to other potential funders or customers. The same may even be true of a privately funded teaching-only institution, which would still be vulnerable to market shifts affecting its customers and a lack of alternative products.

The answer to this problem is to behave, at least in some respects, more like the prominent high value research universities – while at the same time managing to find a set of priorities and values that distinguish them from those institutions. This view of how universities should behave in order to be sustainable was suggested in a recent comment on the US system in the Washington Post. The author, a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested that ‘the strongest universities are those that depend on more than just students for their revenue’, and that institutions should in particular ‘double down on their research efforts to attract new dollars.’ Of course there are many different ways of tackling a research strategy, and there are other ways also of developing revenue streams based on skills and knowledge; for example an increasing number of universities are now presenting themselves as commercial consulting firms.

It has been suggested for some time that an increasing number of universities may be financially at risk. To avoid slipping into this state and to ensure sustainability, higher education institutions would do well to diversify and to ensure that their portfolio is not excessively focused on just one particular activity.

Addressing student attrition

Posted January 25, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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If you were a student at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, and if you were studying Theatre and Drama Studies, you’d be in clover and pretty much guaranteed to complete your course: the attrition rate in the course is zero. On the other hand if in the same Institute you were studying IT Management, or Electronic Engineering, then more likely than not you’ll drop out before you complete: over 60 per cent don’t make it in either course. The same is true for students in Energy in the University of Limerick; but not Midwifery in the same university, where there are no drop-outs. Even in Trinity College Dublin, 50 per cent of Computer Science students don’t make it.

All of these figures, and many more, are revealed by the Irish Times in a recent article. But this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland. In Britain there are significant trends also, with Computer Science generally recording the highest attrition rates. Overall some 25,000 students drop out of higher education altogether every year in the UK, without completing their course. Interestingly, and as an aside, the drop-out rate amongst international students is lower than that of domestic students. In the United States the overall attrition rate is high – estimates put it at over 30 per cent; but very low in well resourced research universities.

What is the cause of all this? In some cases it is likely that students have made an immature choice of study. Young people, for example, who have been used to working with computers since a very early age imagine they will be wonderful computer programmers, until they discover that they do not have the technical (in particular mathematical) skills needed. In some cases students were persuaded by parents or teachers or other advisers to pursue a course of study that they were never really suited for. In some cases universities and colleges don’t provide the kind of support needed to keep people in their studies.

But student attrition is not something minor – it is a huge failure of the system.  It is an extraordinary waste: a waste of talent and personal application; a waste of money, including taxpayer money in many countries; a waste of opportunity for people and society. There is no acceptable drop-out rate. Where students are not completing, those of us in the system need to work very hard to find out why, and need to remedy it. And the key thing to bear in mind is that student achievement requires the best facilities and the best support – it requires good funding. Without that the problem will not be resolved.

Universities and freedom of speech: one more time

Posted January 18, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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For the second year running, the website spiked has published a particular university league table for the UK, providing ‘a detailed, annual insight into the state of free speech, debate and expression in the British academy.’ It presents universities in three categories: ‘red’ (universities that have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’); amber (universities that have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’); and green (universities that have ‘a hands-off approach to free speech’). 115 institutions have been included.

By far the largest group consists of the ‘red’ universities, with 63 institutions. This includes some very familiar names, for example Oxford, LSE, and Queen’s in Ireland. Then there is the ‘amber’ group, with 40 universities including Cambridge, Aberdeen, York, and Ulster. The ‘green’ group of institutions that do not interfere with free speech has 12 universities, including my own RGU.

Oxford may be amongst the ‘red’ group, but its new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, has indicated that she would like to adjust this culture. Speaking at her installation she suggested that students should ‘appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own.’

Universities may increasingly be at risk of seeing intellectual challenge as a disturbance of scholarship rather than its affirmation. Free speech is the guarantor of academic integrity and should never be compromised, where it is within the law. In that sense the rankings published by spiked may serve a useful purpose.

Must Rhodes fall?

Posted January 12, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society, university

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If we were looking for an historical figure with whom a contemporary university would want to be associated, Cecil Rhodes probably would not be on the shortlist. He is strongly associated with the colonisation of Africa (often conducted very aggressively), and from time to time expressed views that we would have to regard as racist – though he also stated that it was unacceptable ‘to disqualify a human being on account of his colour’.

Last year a movement began to have a statue of Rhodes located on the campus of the University of Cape Town taken down. Of course this movement had a hashtag, #RhodesMustFall. The university took down the statue and is re-locating it elsewhere. Shortly afterwards a similar movement, initiated by South African Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, demanded that Oriel College Oxford remove its statue of Rhodes (who was one of the College’s major benefactors). Mr Qwabe may have slightly muddied the waters of his campaign by including in its objectives the banning of the French tricolour national flag.

But how should one see such campaigns? There have been vocal contributions to the debate, both for and against the removal of the Oxford statue. But how should one treat the issue? Is it good enough to say that historical artefacts must be retained because they are of their time and may help us to illustrate our contemporary evaluation of history? Would anyone suggest, for example, that if we found a statue somewhere of Hitler it should stay put? And not just Hitler, though actually there are still statues of Stalin, who was responsible for a good deal more aggression, violence, oppression and death than one could ever associate with Rhodes.

In the end, the key in all of this maybe does not lie in what we do with statues or other symbols, but how we ensure that our words, our vision and our actions reflect an ethos and values that are in keeping with the spirit of higher education. Oxford may, as some have argued, have a racism problem – but this has little enough to do with whose likeness is on the outside wall of Oriel College. The university may need to take action to correct this; but thinking that the main objective is about what it does with statues is a distraction.

For myself, I would leave statues where they are, but would want to be reminded from time to time that the values of learning, integrity, tolerance and equality need to be stated and restated in every generation; and that the symbols we erect today should be beacons of those values.

David Bowie RIP

Posted January 11, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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So now the Starman is waiting in the sky.

Floods

Posted January 11, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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As readers of this blog will know, many parts of Britain have had to deal with serious flooding. The North-East of Scotland had, until about a week ago, largely escaped the heavy rain and wind that caused such damage elsewhere, but over recent days that changed dramatically. By the weekend many towns and rural communities had been affected. The rather pretty little town of Ballater (near Balmoral Castle), for example, has been so badly flooded that some are wondering whether it can ever be restored to its prior state.

My own neighbourhood has not fared well. We live outside the village of Tarves, and the little road from our house was by Friday submerged, though still passable with care.

flooded road

Not far away, the river Ythan burst its banks in the village of Methlick.

Methlick

The actual river is on the left, above – the large expanse of water on the right is a flooded field, and the houses on the far right were at one stage about three feet under water.

One other feature of the floods has been the flow of unexpected items in the torrents caused by the floods. In one location two mobile homes were dumped by the flow of water in a person’s back garden, having been pushed over the garden wall; sitting on top of one of them was a BMW car! In the photo below the car was carried along by the water and left stranded on the edge of a flooded field.

car

It is to be hoped that the weather will now settle down – there has already been too much damage.

Here’s what I’m hoping at the start of 2016

Posted January 5, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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It is the human condition to hope that everything will be better in this year compared with the last. Tennyson expressed it well:

‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.’

So, in that spirit, here are my hopes (I shall not say expectations) for 2016. They may or may not be in order of importance.

  • Newcastle United will shine in the English premiership. OK, won’t be relegated.
  • Ireland will win the European football championships. OK, won’t be eliminated in the group stage.
  • There won’t be a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in Scotland. (I don’t think it should be adopted anywhere, but let’s stick with Scotland).
  • There will be a real drive to remove bureaucratisation from higher education.
  • Daniel Craig will agree to play James Bond one more time.
  • Aberdeen City and Shire will succeed in the bid for a City Region Deal.
  • The Eurovision Song Context will be the most enjoyable ever, and avoid geopolitics.

A very happy New Year to all readers of this blog. May 2016 bring you health, and prosperity, and intellectual curiosity and satisfaction.


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