Archive for February 2011

The deep, deep anguish of higher education

February 23, 2011

Yesterday I was having a conversation with an old friend who has spent an entire career in higher education and who is now close to retirement. Having always expected that he would end his time at his university on a note of satisfaction and with a sense of confidence in what those coming after him would achieve, he has found instead that he is preparing to leave a profession that feels unappreciated and unloved and unsure about what it should be doing to preserve the best of its values. He told me that in his nearly 40 years in academic life he had never seen the university community so dejected and fatalistic.

It is probably not a unique experience. The journal Times Higher Education in its most recent edition carries an anonymous letter from a university employee describing how the institution’s retiring vice-chancellor became emotional in his farewell speech when discussing the personal worries and fears of his staff; the writer refers to the ‘genocide of academe’.

The experience of higher education now is one of disorientation. People have no certainties beyond challenge and change, and there are perhaps not enough leaders who are able to steady nerves and chart a course of action. So the academy is in full and rather ineffective reactive mode. Over the past few weeks I have spoken with a good few academics who assure me that militant resistance is the answer, both to government initiatives and to their implementation by university management teams. But there is very little sign that such resistance, assuming for a moment that its objectives are reasonable, actually works, and to outside (and potentially sympathetic) observers it can come across as nothing much more than an ultra-consevative rejection of change.

Not all of the change that we face as a profession is the product of the reckless or even malicious policies of governments and officials. We do need to recognise that the world in which universities operate is different from the one in which people of my generation started our careers. Universities are now much larger and organisationally complex. For example, the academic staff body would thirty years ago have consisted overwhelmingly of full-time lecturers. Now these are in a minority, with part-timers, casual staff and others making up a substantial proportion of the teaching profession; but also, just look at the small army of contract researchers, again with very different interests and needs.

Universities were always important icons in their local and regional landscape. But in the past they could fulfill that role just by being. Not so today: now universities are expected to be economic, social and cultural regenerators, creating and nurturing complex partnerships with business and the voluntary sector while responding to the often ill-informed expectations of government. Governments in turn want them to solve problems of unemployment and the need for re-training, but often not because they have a new labour force vision, but simply because it’s a convenient way of mitigating the impact of unemployment. While tackling all this, universities are often simply overwhelmed by the assault of bureaucracy that some public figures so easily confuse with accountability.

All in all, what is mostly done is response to this is reactive. Students march and occupy, academics write public letters and hurl a few personal insults at their management hierarchy. The wider body of academics get on with their work, but do so increasingly without confidence or job satisfaction, now often also denied the opportunity of career progression for financial reasons. University leaders are divided, in a complex game of balancing institutional self-interest with internal and external politics. There is lots of talk of strategy, but much of the action is short-term tactical.

It is time for universities to stop being victims. This cannot be done without a proper sense of strategy and an ability to launch it pro-actively. Government policies are often so damaging because governments simply don’t understand higher education; and why should they, when so many academics no longer do, either? Politicians must be engaged in proper and constructive discussion, which must include assurances of how universities can and will help them meet their wider objectives. Universities must stop being divided, both amongst themselves and internally; it is easy to face down institutions that clearly cannot speak with one voice. University leaders must be better at community building within their institutions, and injecting into them a sense of autonomy and confidence. University heads are not industry CEOs, but they are leaders, and they need to exercise leadership in the best sense of the term. As a class, they need to be better prepared and trained for this.

Times have changed, and we may not always have liked the change. But we need to get better at coping with it, and harnessing it, and re-establishing a sense of direction and purpose for the academy.

… And in Scotland?

February 22, 2011

In the meantime, while in England and Ireland politicians agonise over university funding and tuition fees, the issue is coming to a head in Scotland also. Universities Scotland has, according to media reports, submitted comments to the Scottish government setting out its concerns about the funding deficit that has led some universities to take emergency measures including the closing of departments and reductions in staffing. The Principal of the University of Glasgow has warned that his college will run out of cash in 2013 unless something is done. However, the SNP government has regularly repeated its commitment to free higher education, and has suggested various other ways of increasing revenues for the institutions.

A straw in the wind, however, is the tentative change in the position adopted by the Herald newspaper. Until now it has been a staunch supporter of free higher education and has argued repeatedly that this is part of Scottish culture and should not change. Yesterday for the first time it adoped a somewhat different position in its main editorial:

‘… It may be that the unthinkable must become the thinkable and we charge Scotland’s students a fee. However, this would represent a deep ideological shift in Scottish society and it must therefore be a last resort. Before we take it, we must hear from the SNP and every other party on where they stand on this issue. Free higher education is a much-valued principle in Scotland that is now under serious threat. We must know what our politicians propose to do next.’

Interestingly this editorial was published in its print edition only and is not on its website.

Those who have argued passionately for many years for free access to higher education for all, including the wealthy, will find it hard to move away from this position. But all over the industrialised world, as universities are called upon to be innovators and lead discovery for the benefit of society, governments are finding that letting them do so is more costly than taxpayers can easily afford to support by themselves. It was never likely that Scotland could stay immune from this. But it does now have a chance to tackle this much better than England has done, and that surely is an objective worth pursuing.

Taking the pledge

February 22, 2011

In the run-up to the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom, the National Union of Students (NUS) persuaded a number of parliamentary candidates to sign their ‘vote for students’ pledge, which contained the following commitment:

‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.’

Amongst those who signed were, famously, all Liberal Democrat MPs, including their leader Nick Clegg. As we know, Clegg subsequently led his party into a coalition government with the Conservatives, and this government adopted the modified proposals put forward by the Browne review and approved a significant increase in tuition fees, up to a maximum of £9,000. Clegg has since distanced himself from the pledge he had signed, and has indicated repeatedly that he now regretted signing it. In the meantime students have in their anti-fees protests targeted Clegg in particular, and it is expected that by the timne of the next election concerted attempts will be made to ensure he does not get re-elected. More generally his popularity has plummeted, and mostly this is put down to the impact of the pledge and his breaking of it.

And now it seems that the same story may be about to be played out on the other side of the Irish Sea.  Here the Union of Students in Ireland has also produced a pledge. Exactly what its wording is has, curiously, not been publicly disclosed by USI, though it is paraphrased or summarised on its website as a promise ‘not to re-introduce third level fees, to protect students supports and to tackle the graduate emigration crisis.’

Yesterday Ruairi Quinn, Labour Party education spokesperson, publicly signed this pledge. Was that a wise decision? Ruairi Quinn is an intelligent and innovative thinker, and is genuinely committed to education. He is also known to be very proud of the Labour Party’s role in abolishing tuition fees in the 1990s. However, like Nick Clegg he may find circumstances will not be ideal for this commitment, as university funding collapses further and financial pressures mount. Even before signing the pledge, he had already hinted publicly that it may not be possible to avoid student contributions.

Following the general election and the formation of a government, there will certainly be detailed discussions about higher education funding. The universities will certainly make it clear that they are facing a financial catastrophe; and government officials will make it clear that there is no more public money. There is a very strong and honorable case for free higher education, but we are at a point where that no longer looks affordable unless we accept a cut price version as acceptable. And so the political risks to those who have signed pledges will be immense, and like Nick Clegg they may find that it will come back to haunt them.

I cannot help feeling that Ruairi Quinn is taking a big, big gamble. And I am not sure why.

The English fees debate on Twitter

February 21, 2011

Speaking of Twitter, if you want some lively and often sarcastic commentary on current higher education events, it’s a good place to go. Here are two tweets from yesterday on the argument about whether English universities should be discouraged from charging the top end £9,000 tuition fees.

The first is by someone pretending to be UK Prime Minister David Cameron:

‘We hope universities wont overcharge, just like we hope bankers won’t pay themselves huge bonuses. They’ll look jolly well silly if they do.’

And here’s the second one:

‘Dear Government, please stop acting shocked when those universities that you told could charge 9k fees start charging 9k fees.’

What occurs to me in reading threads on Twitter about higher education is that the governments and the universities need to get better at having their say in this medium. When I say ‘get better’, I actually mean they need to make a start by participating in the major conversations, not just making news announcements.

The Twitter revolution

February 21, 2011

What do TCD Provost candidate Colm Kearney and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have in common? They are both aware of the potential of the social media in winning hearts and minds. Kearney was first out of the gate in the campaign for Trinity College’s top post and had a well prepared machine up and running immediately, of which his Twitter account was perhaps the most innovative element. He also has a Facebook account, but I don’t think he has yet put that to work, and indeed may not yet know how to do so.

And Hillary Clinton? Well, she has let it be known that she wants the State Department to use the social media to create a channel of communication with young people in the current areas of turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Whether either of them will use Twitter to practical effect remains to be seen, but it is interesting that both understand the significance of the medium. For anyone following the events right now in the Arab world, doing it via Twitter is a disturbingly different experience. Someone recently suggested to me that getting your news from the BBC is like having afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel, brought to you on a trolley with a table cloth and in a silver kettle. Getting the news from Twitter is like drinking from a street fountain. It’s different, and you need to know how to do it, but you get something that is both more pure and at the same time less refined.

So for example, I have been following events in Libya on Twitter over the past 20 minutes. During the few minutes it has taken me to write this post up to here, a total of 420 tweets have come in about Libya. Some are sarcastic comments (one suggesting for example that the speech by Gaddafi’s son Saif was scripted by US far right columnist Glenn Beck), some are heartbreaking pleas by Libyan exiles hoping for news of loved ones, some are apparent comments from the current trouble spots, some are short pieces of analysis by news reporters, some are announcements by governments and agencies. Is it accurate? Well, the Twitter world is saying right now that Gaddafi has fled, perhaps to Venezuela. The major news sites seem to know nothing of that. By the time you may be reading this you’ll know, perhaps, what is true. So you cannot be sure about the precise accuracy of what you are reading, but you are getting the full force of the news, rumours and arguments swirling round the system. And you keep an eye on the source of what you are reading.

So what about the TCD election? Yes, it has its hashtag, but so far it lacks the sense of immediacy or the excitement that this should generate. Statements there are genteel rather than challenging, and in so far as the candidates are turning up (and not all of them are) they are massaging their voters rather than challenging them to think. But it’s a start, and it would be churlish of me not to say that I am quite impressed that Colm Kearney has gone out there and tried it. Maybe it’s a good sign and we can hope for a communications revolution in Irish higher education. That is what I have wanted to start, and someone needs to take it forward.

A moral position, or just a moralising one?

February 20, 2011

This isn’t really a post about Cambridge University and its students, but it has to start there. This past week the Cambridge Union, which says of itself that it is the oldest student debating society in the world, addressed the motion that ‘pornography does a good public service’. The speakers included past and present porn stars, a pornography film director, a sexologist, a child psychologist and a feminist activist. There was, by all accounts, a robust debate, at the end of which the students present (in a packed house) voted by a majority of 44 in favour of the motion. So, pornography is a public good.

Well, student debates are student debates, and you can maybe imagine the mood in the chamber, apparently ignited a little by the contributing former porn star whose born-again Christian tub thumping against pornography may not have helped matters. But there are topics where it’s not quite so easy to feel OK about a serious issue having been derailed by a mood that wanted a bit of fun; nobody would feel altogether relaxed, I’d venture, about a vote favouring genocide because the last speaker against had been a bit shrill.

Actually, as I said at the outset, I’m not really here to poke a stick at Cambridge students. I’m more worried that, as a society more generally, we are sometimes ambivalent about forms of exploitation. In the case of pornography, it’s not just exploitation, it meanders into some of the worst remaining forms of slavery and human trafficking. A recent report about Romania, for example, has highlighted the sale of teenagers from there to different countries for the purposes of prostitution and pornographic modelling.

Pornography so understood is not erotic art, literature or photography, which is something quite different. It is the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people. Universities represent values of civilisation and freedom, and in my view at least, none there should be ambivalent about the fate of people who become victims of those who believe that human dignity is just one more thing that can be consumed without guilt. I hope we are educating people to understand that. I really do.

Tuition fees: uncertainty and confusion

February 19, 2011

In the broader political landscape, it used to be easier to identify the positions of political parties on higher education fees. Now the position is becoming rather more fluid. The Conservatives in Britain (or for these purposes, England) had been advocates of fees as a major contributor to university revenues, and in the aftermath of the Browne report (but not particularly following Browne’s advice) they lifted the upper limit to £6,000 while allowing universities to go as high as £9,000 in limited circumstances and subject to certain conditions regarding access for the disadvantaged. Once it became clear that most universities were heading straight for the ‘exceptional’ £9,000 ceiling – which was predicted by absolutely everyone but which seemed to take the government totally by surprise – a certain amount of humming and hawing set in on the part of ministers, and now the universities minister, David Willetts, is threatening further funding cuts if this is what really happens.

Meanwhile in Ireland the Labour Party, which until now seemed to be rock solid against tuition fees – is starting to engage in public musings about the theoretical possibility of not quite ruling out some sort of student contribution, fees even.

What many of the politicians appear to have in common, whether they are for or against tuition fees, is a basic lack of understanding about the huge cost of providing a modern, internationally competitive higher education system. Generally they now recognise that tax revenues won’t pay for this, or at least not all of it. But they are finding it difficult to come to grips with how this should be handled, and are very very afraid of the electoral implications. What has happened to Nick Clegg in terms of his public image is not far from anyone’s mind.

However difficult this issue may be politically, it is crucial for higher education itself. Just as governments are raising expectations of what universities can and need to do for society and the economy, they are busily removing the resources that would let the universities meet these expectations. This cannot go on. Politicians need to become realistic and honest in what they say and do in this matter. If they want an excellent higher education system that can be there with the best in the world, they must find the resources. There is no cut price alternative version that is as good as Harvard or MIT or Caltech. There just isn’t.

‘Fixing’ higher education

February 18, 2011

The president of an American liberal arts college, Doug Bennett of Earlham College, has suggested four steps to ‘fix higher education’, published in the Washington Post. These are the four:

1. Fix the Broken Financing of Higher Education.
2. Strengthen the Focus on Assessment of Learning Outcomes.
3. End Intercollegiate Athletics As We Know It.
4. Build a National Open Access Digital Library System.

Three points made by the writer struck me particularly. First, treat higher education as an investment, not as an act of consumption. Secondly, assess funding in terms of how it supports access to higher education. Finally, in looking at learning outcomes, Dr Bennett makes what I regard as a very interesting comment, that higher education ‘is much too dominated by considerations of prestige and much too little dominated by considerations of real value or effectiveness.’

Leaving aside the athletics, which is less of a problem over here – and indeed, sports are making a positive contribution to university life in these islands – it can be seen that our priorities for tackling the crisis in higher education may not be too far off those that would apply in the United States.

Assessing the student experience

February 18, 2011

Once a year the journal Times Higher Education conducts and then publishes a survey of students in British universities, recording the criteria that students believe are important in assessing  the quality of their experience and the performance of their institution in relation to these. The results are then compiled in the form of a league table, the most recent of which has just been published by the journal.

As with every survey and every league table, it is wise to  enter a health warning or two. There will always be a margin of error, and in the case of each institution only a relatively small sample of the student body is involved. Also, a subjective experience on the part of a student may not necessarily translate into an objective statement of quality or the lack of it. All that having been said, the survey and the results from it can be used to gather some insights.

One interesting observation would have to be that while the results do not absolutely mirror university rankings produced in other league tables, they are not wholly incompatible either. So interestingly, research intensive universities on the whole appear to offer a better student experience than those that focus largely on teaching. Post-1992 universities – with a couple of exceptions, including the one I am about to join, RGU in Aberdeen (one of only two to be in the top 40, at 25) – do not do as well as older ones. Oxford and Cambridge, while showing up in the top 10, are not right at the top (they are at 6 and 4, respectively, out of a total of 113): that distinction goes to Loughborough University, for the second year running. The highest placed Scottish university is the University of Dundee (number 5), the highest placed Welsh institution is Bangor University (number 14), now led by ex Maynooth president John Hughes. Overall, the availability of good facilities, including good sports facilities, makes an impression on students, though ‘good teaching, enthusiastic staff and a well-structured course’ are seen as the most important.

In England surveys such as this may become an important selection tool for student applicants, who may balance the cost of degree programmes in the new tuition fee environment against student satisfaction recorded here. It is in any case right that universities should take seriously the impression they make on their students, and the level of satisfaction that these students feel. It is interesting also that students do not view what they find that differently from how it might be assessed in other processes. And finally, it is fairly clear and probably unsurprising that a well resourced institution will seem more attractive to students, as much as to anyone else.

New Irish university president

February 17, 2011

NUI Maynooth yesterday announced the appointment of its third president, Professor Philip Nolan. He is currently Deputy President and Registrar of University College Dublin, and he has been a key member of the management team assembled there by President Hugh Brady. Another member of that team. Professor Des Fitzgerald, is a candidate in the election for Provost of Trinity College Dublin.

NUI Maynooth has been a major success story in recent Irish higher education, having in particular built up a very smart framework of student recruitment that increased its size exponentially; but it also faces a number of challenges, not excluding the challenge of explaining what its distinctive role is within the country’s university system. It also has to deal with the complexities of sharing a site with the Pontifical University (St Patrick’s College), of which it was once a component. It is currently involved in partnership discussions with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Dublin City University – discussions I helped to initiate while I was President of DCU.

Philip Nolan himself brings into his new role lots of experience of the university system. He was one of the key movers in the establishment of the Dublin Region Higher Education Alliance (DRHEA), about which I shall be writing more later. I wish him well in his new role.


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