Archive for June 2010

Forwarding the papers

June 25, 2010

Last year I wrote a blog post about the role of universities in stimulating economic development. Over the months since then, this post prompted two comments. You can see the post, and the two very odd comments, here.

Now as far as anyone here can see, what papers should I be forwarding to these good people?


A story of cheerleaders and how they are to give women equality

June 25, 2010

Here’s a strange story, from the often strange world of American college sports. You may possibly not have heard of it, but in Hamden, Connecticut, there is a higher education institution called Quinnipiac University. It has hit upon an interesting wheeze to get round legal equality requirements imposed under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act 1972, which provides:

‘No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.’

Broadly speaking this has been interpreted to mean, amongst other things, that college sports programmes must make equal or equivalent provision for men and women. As many sports are gender-specific, the assumption has been that universities operate within the law if they ensure that there are roughly the same opportunities for men and women to participate in sports, even if not always in the same games or teams.

In Quinnipiac University the powers that be decided to disband the women’s volleyball team, and to compensate for the lost sporting opportunities it augmented instead its cheerleading squad, claiming that this was more cost-effective and served more women. Now five of the former volleyball players have sued the university, claiming that it was in violation of its legal obligations as ‘cheerleading’ is ‘not a real sport’. The case is currently before the United States District Court, and the outcome may turn out to be decisive in the development of women’s sports across America.

So what are the issues at stake here? First, it seems to me that there is a major need for American higher education to get sports into some sort of perspective. I am hugely committed to our own sports activities, and believe that sports and athletics have added great value to DCU. But nevertheless, in many US universities this has got out of hand, and educational activities are taking second place to sports. This is not, or should not be, sustainable.

Secondly, while it is inevitable that men and women will often play in different teams, the value of their sports should be equivalent, and it is particularly important to avoid the impression that women should play a supporting role, rather than be athletes in their own right. I hope this case is decided correctly!

The news from Australia

June 24, 2010

I spent a few days in Australia earlier this year, and my visit convinced me that in Europe we need to pay more attention to what is going on in that country. Here is a western democracy that has been able to avoid the recession that hit the rest of us, that has continued to enjoy a stable banking system with no inflated property values, that has ambitious plans for higher education expansion and that has a vibrant and growing population. But, I would have added, and apparently very unpopular government then led by Labor leader Kevin Rudd.

However, with a general election approaching and a real possibility of a meltdown in the Labor vote, the party has experienced a stunning coup that seems to have been hatched and completed in only minutes, and today Australia has a new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard (the country’s first woman in that role). It now remains to be seen whether the change of leadership will improve the Labor Party’s electoral prospects.

I shall continue to watch with interest.

Switching off the internet?

June 23, 2010

Here’s an idea from left field. US Senator Joe Lieberman, one time Vice-Presidential candidate for the Democrats (on the Al Gore ticket) and now an independent senator, is apparently introducing legislation that would allow the US President, in the event of an ‘imminent cyber threat’, to ‘take over our civilian networks’. This has been interpreted by commentators as a proposal to allow the US President to ‘switch off’ the internet.

The Senator seems to be slightly unsure (based on interviews he has given) whether he does mean this or whether he means something else, but it throws into relief again the question as to whether, how and for what purpose the internet should be regulated or constrained. There is a strong global culture now that sees the internet as ‘no man’s land’ and that does not accept that there should be any legal or governmental restrictions on it. Sooner or later there will need to be a formal international consensus on this, not least because governments in many parts of the world see the internet as a threat and may be tempted to censor or restrict it (as some do).

It’s not as if all reasonable people would always insist on a totally unfettered internet. I would know few, for example, who would argue that online child pornography should just be tolerated. So if there are to be restrictions at all, we need to be clear about what should drive these, and how far they should be tolerated, and how the overall free and democratic nature of the net can be preserved. It is time for these matters to be addressed explicitly.

The private option?

June 23, 2010

Recently I got a letter accusing me of arguing for the ‘privatisation’ of Irish higher education. Well, I have also received letters suggesting that ‘you have hidden your shady Hungarian past’ (seriously, I got that in a letter – I was rather sorry it was untrue, it made me sound much more interesting), and that I had falsified my real age (my correspondent suggested I was really 76). So I don’t take such correspondence excessively seriously.

However, if his green pen is still working, my anonymous correspondent concerned about privatisation might want to direct his fire at Paul Marshall, Executive Director of the 1994 Group of universities in England. According to this report on the BBC, Mr Marshall has suggested that a growth in the private university sector could bring ‘access to a form of higher education for all, literally at the end of every street.’ I generally advise anyone who is tempted to use the world ‘literally’ to take a deep breath and then stay silent for a moment – and I’m sure Mr Marshall will on balance agree that not every street (literally) in the UK will have a university on it, no matter what happens.

But I digress;  he is raising an interesting issue. In a nutshell, he appears to be arguing that the British university sector will in the current budgetary climate lack the capacity to admit all those who want to go to university, and that private universities (yet to be formed) might provide the answer. And he suggests that private providers will increase competition and thus quality, and would be a good thing.

I have not seen the text of Mr Marshall’s speech, and so I cannot be absolutely sure what he was suggesting. But if the report is a fair summary, the analysis needs to be rather more nuanced. A reference to a ‘private’ university could mean different things. It could – and more usually would, particularly in the United States – be a reference to not-for-profit universities that are however outside of direct government or state control, getting a substantial amount of their income from full-cost tuition fees; or it could be a reference to ‘for-profit’ institutions such as the University of Phoenix, which is really less a university as we would understand it and more a corporate elearning organisation. But these two categories are fundamentally different.

Ireland does have ‘for-profit’ higher education providers, but on the whole these are on the margins of the system, offering a limited range of programmes which in turn are externally accredited. We also have the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), which offers degree programmes not supported by public money-funded block grants. But it does not operate as a for-profit organisation.

It is on the whole my view that for-profit institutions should be allowed to operate, though they may need some monitoring to ensure quality. But these institutions are not some sort of answer  to current problems. This is so, in my view, partly because higher education should be informed by a public service frame of reference. On the other hand, we may at some point also need to look at a revised model of the relationship between higher education and the state, and this could include at least some universities opting for private not-for-profit status. Right now we need to become more imaginative in responding to current circumstances.

In search of a higher education strategy

June 22, 2010

The Irish Times newspaper reports today that the steering group working on the Irish higher education strategic review is set to recommend ‘the return of student tuition charges as colleges face unprecedented financial pressures’. According to the newspaper, the group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt will also recommend the following:

‘Closer collaboration between all third-level colleges with the development of clusters specialising in a smaller number of disciplines: an expanded role for the HEA in managing the sector and linking spending to national objectives and a new workload management process where the working hours of academic staff in both the universities and the institutes of technology (ITs) will be more closely monitored.’

In fact Colin Hunt spoke at the conference held in DCU last week, and in his address (in which he emphasised that he was not presenting an early précis of the report but was speaking on his own behalf) he raised a number of issues, including the lack of transparency in the universities’ workload allocations, the difficulty the Irish higher education system may face in absorbing a major increase in student numbers (from 160,000 today to an estimated 275,000 in 2030), the need to have Irish institutions with critical mass, and the desirability of diversity in the sources of funding.

My concern at the moment is that the issues that may form the subject of the recommendations of the report when it is published don’t necessarily address the major objective of having a higher education strategy for Ireland. The national strategy debate has tended to focus on operational matters rather than on a vision. So that as a country we don’t get bogged down in a debate on what are important but still secondary issues – such as workload allocations, and even funding – we need to formulate a concept of higher education that explains what we are trying to achieve as a country. A higher education strategy is not about filling various campuses with students and researchers or equipment; it is not about hours of work; and it is not even about resourcing. It is about what higher education can do to offer high value learning to students of all ages; how research should be conducted, and on what themes or subjects, and to what end. It is about what higher education institutions can or should do to support and assist our society and community to achieve its full potential and to secure prosperity, inclusiveness and a sense of collective self-respect. We cannot develop a framework for how colleges should be run unless we are already clear what higher purpose these colleges need to pursue.

Of course as a university President I care about funding, resources, staffing buildings, equipment, governance, inter-institutional relations and so forth. But they all take second place to the overall vision, which they must be equipped to implement. The strength of that vision will give life to the implementation of the overall recommendations of the report. It is my hope that the working group will ensure that the vision will be at the heart of the strategy.