Archive for November 2010

How can we identify the next generation of leading universities?

November 30, 2010

At a recent workshop on university rankings one participant was quoted as having said the following:

‘Universities less than 50 years old fall below the radar of current world university rankings systems. Younger institutions are under-represented in world rankings. Current rankings do not provide information which allows the early identification of universities which are building research activity and intensity.’

First, I cannot help pointing out that the university I led until very recently is definitely younger than 50 and is definitely not below the rankings radar, having entered the global top 300 in 2006. However, the question as to how we might identify the next generation of leaders is an interesting one. Although no university will make it into that group without real world-class research excellence, that may not be the early identifier. If you want to break the hegemony of US Ivy League institutions and Oxbridge I would suggest you need to be different, not an imitator. You need to be an innovator with knowledge, finding new ways to develop higher education both in pedagogy and in scholarship, finding new and better ways of answering society’s questions.

There is a widespread view that one model of university will always dominate. I doubt that.


Political expletives

November 30, 2010

Almost exactly 16 years ago in Ireland the then Leader of Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey (who had been before and would later again become Taoiseach, and who was never less than controversial), gave an interview to the magazine Hot Press. The interview was unremarkable in terms of content, but explosive in terms of the colourful language used. So Ireland was able to learn that one of its political leaders used all sorts of swear words in conversation, and that he had a particular fondness for the ‘F’ word. Shock was expressed in newspaper comment pages. But nobody needed to be surprised. After all, most people in Ireland were (and are) fond of swearing their way through the day, by no means excluding politicians. One other Minister (of a different party) was notorious for his habit of arranging meetings by telling his secretary to ‘get that f***er in here’. And today several Irish politicians are known for their fondness of expletives.

It’s not uniquely an Irish habit. The White House tapes released at the time of the Watergate investigations revealed Richard Nixon as a serial swearer. Recently there have been newspaper reports telling us that current British Prime Minister David Cameron ‘uses four-letter expletives as casually as a teenager in a school playground.’ What is more, in doing so he follows, it is said, in the footsteps of the last two occupants of No 10 Downing Street. And back in America, Barack Obama last year said of his (now departed) White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that Mother’s Day was problematic for him because he was not used to saying ‘day’ after the word ‘mother’.

Why would any of that shock us? Maybe there is a view in some circles that politicians need to show some sort of decorum that suggests to voters that they would be more at ease at your granny’s birthday tea than just before closing time in the pub. But don’t we want our politicians to be part of life as it is lived, rather than as it is airbrushed?

I confess I get very tired of the over-use of swear words, particularly in Dublin, where many people seem to feel a need to introduce the ‘F’ word into every sub-clause of every sentence. But on the other hand, expletives can have a use, and apparently are effective in reducing tension and blood pressure. So if anyone wants to be critical of David Cameron, I hope they find a better basis for that. And as for Charles Haughey’s interview, even today it makes me smile, not because I admire the language, but because he felt confident enough to ‘be himself’. That’s not a bad thing.

The rise of for profit higher education?

November 29, 2010

As we have noted here recently, the British Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, appears to feel that more private for-profit institutions should be encouraged to play a role in English higher education. For those who may feel, like the Minister, that for-profit colleges will apply a market discipline and bring greater efficiency and choice, it is worth noting recent information coming from America that only 22 per cent of new entrants to such colleges actually graduate within six years. While some of the reasons for this may be related to the backgrounds of the students taken in, it is still an unacceptable performance and should give some considerable cause for concern.

Of course there are some high quality private institutions of this kind, including one or two in Ireland, but across the board there must always be questions about the idea of a ‘university’ that has to organise itself in a way that will secure significant profits and thus dividends for shareholders. I am not against participation in higher education by for-profits, but I would strongly suggest that this is not the answer to almost any issue that is currently of concern to the sector; and furthermore if new private institutions are pushed into the market too aggressively there could be serious problems in the medium term if some of them run into quality issues.

A better model might be for universities to enter into partnerships with some for-profit institutions that can provide services in an appropriately monitored environment.

Universities: what is the Scottish solution?

November 29, 2010

For understandable reasons, a lot of attention over recent weeks has focused on the future funding framework for English universities in the light of the publication of Lord Browne’s report. This report does not apply to Scotland, and as we have also noted here, the Scottish government plans to retain a system of ‘free’ higher education without tuition fees. But it also recognises that there is a serious funding problem, and it has invited suggestion for a ‘Scottish solution’ that will ensure its universities remain viable.

At a recent graduation ceremony the Principal of Abertay University in Dundee, Professor Bernard King (who is also Convener of Universities Scotland), has warned about the risks facing Scottish higher education in the light of budget cuts, and has said that a clear picture of how universities are to be adequately funded is now needed urgently. The Scottish government is planning to publish a Green Paper on the topic shortly. In the absence of tuition fees, but with the likelihood of funding cuts continuing over the next few years, Scottish universities will have to find ways of targeting additional revenue streams and may be driven away from traditional core activities in doing so. Right now they are at risk of being seen as having lower capacity for quality than English universities. Certainly whatever is to be done needs to be agreed quickly.

Occupation therapy?

November 28, 2010

It is hard to say when exactly the idea of student occupations was born, but some trace it to student protests in Columbia University, New York, in 1968 against the university’s alleged involvement in a defence think tank; these protests involved the occupation of several campus buildings, from which the students were eventually evicted by police action.

In the years that followed, student occupations became a common weapon in protests, to the point where they was almost a reflex action. Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library! These actions were often fun, though whether they achieved anything very much is another matter.

During the more conservative years that followed from the 1980s onwards, student occupations became very rare. But now, it seems, they are back; so much so that there is even a website dedicated exclusively to student occupations, starting with British university occupations in protest at Israel’s offensive against Gaza, and more recently the wave of occupations prompted by British government funding cuts in higher education.

I must now confess that, rather many years ago, I too participated in an occupation or two. Of course the occupations had no effect whatsoever on the grand political issues at they were directed, but I would not say that they were pointless: they produced debate and political analysis amongst the occupiers, some of it not uninteresting. But until recently I would have said that, as a society, we have moved on: we have very different opportunities for registering our views these days. Also, my concern (as I have stated before) is that these occupations actually help to turn the wider public against universities, something that we cannot afford right now.

I would not dismiss the intentions and motives of at least some of the protestors; but I think their methods are misguided, not least because they give opportunities to some whose motives are rather less clear.

The fire is going out?

November 27, 2010

A few weeks ago I visited someone in their home, and as I entered I was met by what, to me, was an almost overpowering smell of cigarette smoke. It is a very rare thing nowadays to find anyone smoking indoors, so encountering it now is rather striking. My friend is a chain smoker, and at home he continues to light up constantly.

Some years ago that would not have been unusual at all. When I was a boy both my parents smoked, my father about 40 a day (and occasional pipes and cigars), my mother maybe 20. I am sure that our house smelled strongly of cigarette smoke. As, probably, did most public buildings that I might have entered. I have never been a smoker, but for years I was a gifted passive smoker.

Now, I gather that the number of smokers is going down rapidly, and of course we have smoking bans in public spaces. So can smoking die out completely? I suspect that even if it could, it won’t happen for some time. But social expectations and requirements have changed, and so the various bans that have been introduced in a number of countries have been accepted and have started to change behaviour. This is so even in France (which banned smoking in most public spaces in 2007), where it was always thought that French smokers would refuse to obey anti-smoking laws. I remember a delegation of French public officials visiting Dublin in 2005 and absolutely refusing to believe that a smoking ban was either just or enforceable.

And what does one say to the person who occasionally will suggest that smoking is a civil liberty, and that it is no part of the government’s role to make people stop? Smoking can impose significant costs on society, and so the taxpayer has an interest in ensuring there is decreased consumption. And as for me, I am delighted that whenever I enter s bar or a hotel my eyes do not begin to water, as they once did.

PS. But whatever happened to pipes? I used to love the smell of pipe smoke…

Interesting times for English universities

November 27, 2010

Over the past few days, the British Minister of State for Universities and Science has been making various statements designed to map out the future direction of English higher education. On November 3 he made a statement to the House of Commons in which he explained the government’s decision to allow an increase in tuition fees, without lifting the cap completely. The standard ceiling will now be £6,000, with fees ‘n ‘exceptional cases’ permitted up to £9,000. This will not take the form of a payment on entry, but rather a repayment on graduation after pay exceeds a threshold of £21,000. He explained the payment system as follows:

‘We are also proposing a more progressive repayment structure. At present graduates start repaying when their income reaches £15,000. We will increase the repayment threshold to £21,000, and will thereafter increase it periodically to reflect earnings. The repayment will be 9% of income above £21,000, and all outstanding repayments will be written off after 30 years. Raising the threshold reduces the monthly repayments for every single graduate.’

Then the minister also addressed a meeting of Universities UK in which he explained that the upper cap of £9,000 would only apply where universities made special access arrangements for disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the minister also laid emphasis on his desire to have private higher education providers enter the market, and for growth in higher education provision by further education colleges. He described the new world of higher education as follows:

‘First of all there is a serious requirement of widening access. Secondly, universities shouldn’t underestimate the competitive challenge they will face. I have a stream of new providers who believe that there is potential to offer an alternative. I believe that the challenge for universities is to look very carefully at their costs, not simply assume [they can] take today’s costs and put them into the new world.’

Clearly the British government intends to change English higher education quite fundamentally. It is still too early to see for sure how the changes will look, but clearly there will be a major emphasis on competition, both between institutions and between types of institutions. Whether the system can flourish on that basis rather remains to be seen.

Is industry funding of university research dangerous?

November 26, 2010

Last year in this blog I published a post in which I raised various questions about links between universities and industry, and in particular whether industry funding for university research can compromise academic integrity. I concluded that safeguards were necessary, but that the need for higher education to play a role in addressing society’s problems and needs suggested that academic/business partnerships could play an important and constructive role.

In the history of higher education this is a relatively new issue. It has become more significant largely for two reasons: first, the very rapid development of high value and expensive research (particularly in science and engineering) has brought in its wake pressure from governments for the funding to be shared between the taxpayer and those who could commercially exploit the research; and secondly, as industrial innovation increasingly depends on the development of intellectual property, companies have found it useful to seek partnerships with academics whose discoveries could form the basis for new patents. As I noted in the previous post, this kind of partnership gained profile with the agreement in 1998 between the University of California at Berkeley and the Swiss company Novartis on a research partnership in agricultural biotechnology. When this agreement was subsequently reviewed by external experts it was queried whether it had produced sufficient research benefits, and whether it had created risks for the university.

More recently some questions have been asked about the tendency for oil companies to fund research into alternative energy in universities. A study sponsored by the Center for American Progress has suggested that oil industry funding of university research in the United States has compromised academic freedom and has largely served to reinforce industry interests rather than open-minded discovery. The report makes some suggestions for a check list to accompany all such arrangements, such as guarantees of full academic autonomy and control over published output.

In the meantime, it must be borne in mind that industry partnerships are now at the heart of government research funding. For example, Science Foundation Ireland in its documentation has this to say about such partnerships:

‘SFI strongly encourages research collaboration between SFI funded scientists & engineers and industry. Such interactions can lead to SFI scientists & engineers becoming more informed about industrial priorities and research needs; and lead to industrial collaborators being informed about important new science and engineering research developments in Ireland.’

This statement is typical of the approach adopted by research funding agencies in a number of countries. But there has also been a section of the academic community that is suspicious this approach and feels it is compromising academic values and undermining the tradition of open-ended, ‘blue skies’ research.

It might be said that there are two issues – related but distinct – that come into play here. The first is the fear that as industry has specific commercial goals, it will want researchers to provide findings that back the company’s objectives or interests. If for example a company is developing a drug to treat a disease it will want the academic research to confirm that the drug has the desired effect, and may want to suppress research that does not come to that conclusion. This is a legitimate concern, and it is right for safeguards to be found and rigorously applied that protect academic integrity and prevent undue influence being used to secure pre-determined results.

The second issue is a more general dislike of academic discovery supporting private profit, no matter how carefully integrity is protected. There isn’t a ‘right’ answer to this, but it could be said that where the taxpayer invests strongly in research they may want to see a direct impact on economic growth, and where foreign direct investment is a major public policy objective academic research support may become compelling. To put it another way, the political reality may be that academic/industry partnerships have become an essential ingredient in public policy that universities will not be able to resist, even if they wanted to.

For myself, I have no problems with such partnerships, where they are carefully structured and monitored. I am not at all against blue skies research, and indeed I believe that it must always be an important component of higher education. But I do not believe it to be either realistic or right to suggest that academic resources cannot be harnessed directly to support economic development, nor do I believe industry/university research contracts to be inherently wrong, even where their outputs may produce industry profits. It is too late to return the academy to an ivory tower; but staying out in the world does not have to compromise ethical standards or integrity.

Topical begging

November 25, 2010

Back in the early 1980s, when there was a major famine in Ethiopia and huge efforts were made globally to raise money to support the victims, an Irish journalist reported seeing a young boy begging in central Dublin, shouting ‘Help the starving in Utopia’. I was reminded of that this morning when I saw a man sitting in a doorway with a piece of paper next to a paper cup reading ‘Support my 4-year recovery plan’. I gave him some funding, though it will not have very significantly front-loaded his recovery.

There is of course a serious side to this, as we must now expect to see an increase in the number of those on the streets and homeless, and we must hope that we are able, as a society, to give some protection to those who become completely marginalised. We fail as a community if we are unwilling to address this.

The National Recovery Plan, 2011-2014

November 25, 2010

The process of national recovery that eventually brought Ireland the Celtic Tiger (in the good years before 2005) began in 1987 with the ‘Programme for National Recovery’. That plan was agreed with the social partners, and its essence was a rise in productivity accompanying a reconfiguration of public expenditure. It produced quite rapid results, and by the end of the 1980s Ireland was well on the road to stable public finances and significant economic growth.

I suspect it is not a coincidence that the plan published yesterday by the coalition government to restore public finances is called the ‘National Recovery Plan‘. The intention and hope is that the plan will similarly help to restore confidence and a sense of purpose. Whether it will achieve this remains to be seen, and indeed whether it will survive in its current outline should there be a change of government (as must be anticipated) after the coming general election. But it will be very difficult for any incoming government to change the basic parameters without offending those providing the money for Ireland right now.

From the perspective of higher education, the key message of the plan appears to be that support will be maintained, more or less. Staffing in education overall is to fall over the coming year, but will then rise again (in contrast with the rest of the public service) over subsequent years, from 93,700 in 2011 to 95,750 in 2014. Academic staff, in the meantime, will be expected to work ‘an additional hour per week’ (page 70), an adjustment which will not be easy to measure specifically. Section 4.9.3 then states as follows (page 78):

‘The Government recognises the importance to society of widespread and equitable opportunities for access to higher education and provides very substantial resources to this purpose. As well as the wider benefits for society, higher education directly benefits its participants through better lifetime earnings opportunities. Over the period of the Plan, it is intended that a higher student contribution to the cost of higher education will be made.’

The latter change is explained more specifically later in the document (page 120), where the proposal is stated to be:

‘Replace Student Services Charge with a flat higher education student contribution of €2,000, and introduce €200 charge for PLC students.’

This, as I have already noted, must amount to the reintroduction of a tuition fee, as it appears no longer to be linked to ‘student services’. It also appears to be intended to have immediate effect, as the full yield from the higher fee is to apply in 2011. It is not absolutely clear whether this yield is to be additional to existing public expenditure on higher education, or to replace some of it. The Budget and Book of Estimates in December should provide that information.

Regarding research, the Plan re-affiorms the objectives of the Innovation Taskforce that reported earlier this year, and then explains public policy on research as follows (page 43):

‘Productive, high calibre research, undertaken by highly skilled research teams working closely with industry partners will continue to be a core investment priority for Government. This new competitive advantage will be one of the key drivers of Ireland’s economic recovery. But there must be a greater focus on the commercialisation of research outputs. Only world- class research projects should be supported and researchers need not necessarily be engaged across all disciplines. In sectors where we cannot be world leaders, the focus should move to technology transfer and utilisation of research elsewhere.’

The document also states that industry-academic partnerships in research should continue to be promoted.

It would seem fair to say that the National Recovery Plan places some emphasis on education and research, and appears to suggest that they are priorities over the coming years. More detailed financial plans set out in the Budget will provide more information. Of course, Irish higher education is by now very seriously under-funded, and there are huge challenges ahead, but it may be that the position will not worsen significantly over the years ahead.