Archive for March 2011

The onward march – for now – of the ‘employment control framework’

March 25, 2011

In Ireland the Higher Education Authority has now formally published the new version of the ‘employment control framework’ on its website, and has also issued a set of explanations and statements which produce a very benign interpretation of the terms of the ECF. For example, the statement suggests that promotions are not prohibited by the ECF provided the distribution of junior and senior posts does not change from a December 2010 baseline. The latter statement is welcome, though it would have to be said that it directly contradicts a clear statement in the ECF itself – that there can be no promotions. The reference to the distribution of grades in the ECF applies not to promotions but to the filling of vacancies (see pages 6-7 of the ECF).

The HEA also says in the statement that authorisation will not be required for any appointments; again this is clearly contradicted in the ECF itself (see e.g. first paragraph of section 8 of the ECF).

It is no doubt welcome that the HEA (which cannot in any case be blamed for the ECF) is proposing to apply a reasonable interpretation of the framework. But in the end that will be subject to government instructions and pressures. It seems to me that the position has not changed: the ECF must be revoked.

Visa contradictions

March 25, 2011

During my ten years as President of Dublin City University, every so often I would seek out a government minister – any minister – at a reception or other event to tell them what damage the immigration system was inflicting on Ireland’s capacity to recruit international students. Politicians tend to pop up from time to time to extol the advantages of selling the country’s education abroad (hoping in part that the revenues will compensate for the loss of domestic funding), and in doing so they often seriously over-state the potential financial benefits; but then again, they also seem to be unaware of the damage they do to this very plan when they tighten immigration rules, or make more complicated the procedures for visa applications. Some of my colleagues would regularly tell me stories of student applicants lost from places like China and India because visas were not being granted with the same speed as was the case in some other countries.

Actually, in fairness ministers would often try to improve visa procedures, and sometimes they succeeded. But it still didn’t stop them from pursuing restrictive immigration policies. It always struck me as ludicrous, for example, that we would educate international students to high skill levels and then force them to leave the country again, when we could have used those skills.

This kind of contradiction appears to be an unavoidable feature of the system, as new visa rules just published in Britain again demonstrate. Because governments approach immigration as a prima facie bad thing, they promote not just rules to restrain it but also a general hostility to the whole idea which then infects areas, such as higher education, where they actually want to promote it. So here for example is a country that must want to be the world’s premier centre for high value courses for learning English; and that same country requires a high level of English proficiency before visas will be granted.

These issues will more easily be overcome if immigration is seen in a more rational way: as something that more often than not benefits the host country. It must be acknowledged that the British government has, in its new rules, attempted to meet some of the concerns of universities, but the overall tone is still one of, if not hostility to migrants, then at least scepticism about their bona fides. Ultimately, in a globalised world we will all need to take a more mature view of this. Of course countries cannot always accommodate a sudden flood of migrants, but they can build a system around a proper assessment of how immigration can benefit society and the economy. That would be a good start.

How do you price a university degree programme?

March 24, 2011

How do you price a degree programme? Well, ask most English universities and the answer is £9,000. Or rather, the answer may be ‘whatever the government-imposed upper limit for tuition fees is’. In fact, if the British government had followed Lord Browne’s recommendation that there should not be an upper limit, what would universities now be proposing to charge? £15,000? More? Or maybe less?

What is clear so far is that the British government’s strategy of suggesting a benchmark figure of £6,000, and then allowing up to £9,000 in exceptional circumstances, and establishing a whole new bureaucracy to deal with those exceptions (the Office of Fair Access) has not worked as intended at all. All universities to have declared their hand so far, except one, have gone for £9,000. The one exception to date is London Metropolitan University, which is actually going to charge less even than £6,000 for some programmes. Sheffield University, which has not yet made any specific announcement, may be going for less than £9,000, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The latest university to make its no-surprise £9,000 announcement is the University of Manchester, which has managed to declare its intentions in a sombre tone of regret, with its President saying that the decision had been taken ‘very reluctantly’ – which sounds odd, because either this is the right decision or it isn’t.

Some of the speculation doing the rounds is that universities now feel compelled to charge £9,000 as a quality statement: if we charge less, we are saying that our courses are less good. This suggests that pricing a university programme is now being seen as part of brand marketing, rather than determining a genuine cost structure.

Universities are not public service bureaucracies, but equally they are not for-profit commercial entities, and pricing their products on the basis of market expectations is not a good idea. But then again, it may be an inevitable consequence of the new English funding régime.

But it is equally wrong to see pricing primarily as a product of what the taxpayer can currently afford. The proportionate distribution of a sum of money fixed by government – as in Ireland and Scotland – does not reveal the true cost of a university degree. It may be that universities need to be both more forthright but also more transparent in explaining what costs must be met in order to offer programmes that are in line with mission and represent quality. Doing that properly will enhance the ability of the sector to be persuasive in coming to an appropriate funding mechanism. But right now it is hard to avoid the conclusion that both governments and universities are losing their way on this question.

The legal route to terminating the ‘employment control framework’?

March 23, 2011

Readers of this blog will by now be well familiar with the Irish ‘employment control framework’, the state-imposed mechanism for restricting the capacity of universities to hire and promote staff, even within budget. Following the publication of the new framework, the influential Trinity College Dublin law professor Eoin O’Dell published a compelling legal analysis in his blog pointing to the various flaws in the way in which the framework was adopted, and in the proposed enforcement of it.

Based on this analysis, TCD Provost candidate Colm Kearney has indicated that, if elected to the post, he would move immediately to restrain the implementation of the ECF by seeking a court injunction. I can see the attraction, at least in principle, of this approach, but I would not myself advocate it immediately, because winning any such litigation may prompt a political backlash with further and more restrictive legislation following it. In any case, litigation in Ireland is notoriously costly and often not exactly speedy. I would prefer the continuation of a strong and united front of people across higher education attacking the framework; I believe there is a good chance that this campaign will succeed and that the ECF will be revoked.

Not quite the apocalypse?

March 23, 2011

Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper carried an interesting article by Universities UK president, Professor Steve Smith. In this he argued that the new post-Browne funding model for English universities would not actually involve a public funding reduction, and that it was untrue that the government would cease to fund the humanities and social sciences. In both cases his point was that while the funding model would change, public money would continue to flow, but just through different channels (mainly through students in receipt of loans and grants).

Leaving aside the slightly irritating tendency for Universities UK to present issues these days as if there were no UK higher education outside of England there are some interesting points in Steve Smith’s analysis – though he will also play into the hands of some critics with his strong references to the introduction of ‘market incentives into the system’. But in every part of the UK the question remains of how an increasingly obvious inability of the taxpayer to meet the cost of higher education can be overcome, and whether the method chosen for England is viable.

Motherhood and Pi

March 23, 2011

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a young graduate about useful and useless information. For him, very strongly in the latter category was absolutely everything in mathematics beyond basic arithmetic, and he particularly resented being taught and having to remember the significance of πr2 - something he swore he would never ever have to use in what he called ‘real life’. I didn’t bother pursuing this particular line, but I suspect he would not have been able to tell me the value of π - i.e. 3.14159 (as readers of this blog will of course know).

Well, for a moment yesterday I thought that help might have arrived for him, as I read a report that a Republican US Congresswoman, Martha Roby, had introduced a Bill in Congress stipulating that from now on π will be a much more memorable and manageable value of 3 precisely. This, she was reported as suggesting, would allow American students to be more mathematically competitive in global terms.

Alas, it wasn’t true, or at least apparently not. The internet has been buzzing with this particular item, and yet it took staffers of the conservative Congresswoman (who incidentally prefers to be described as a ‘Congressman’) a few days to state, on her Facebook page and not exactly prominently, that this was all just a joke at her expense. I was hoping that it might be accurate, and that she might follow up this particular second-guessing of Euclid of Alexandria with other radical re-arrangements of mathematical theorems. Unfortunately we are destined to stay wedded to actual reality. Oh dear.

The part-time academy?

March 22, 2011

It is now nearly 25 years since I first assumed academic management responsibilities. At the time, after the untimely death of my head of department in Trinity College Dublin, I became Acting Head of TCD’s business school. In that capacity I found myself interacting with a group of part-time staff who played a major role in some of the School’s programmes. The individuals concerned were business practitioners of one kind or another who delivered some of our teaching in a part-time capacity. Students loved them (mostly), because they brought with them direct knowledge of the actual business world and because they would be good later for helping them to network. They were valuable colleagues, but it would also have to be said that their involvement was limited due to their main professional responsibilities. In my subsequent roles (as a Dean and as a university president) I continued to engage professional part-timers in a variety of subject areas. Two that spring to mind were John Bruton, former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), and John Crown (a very prominent and outspoken consultant oncologist in Dublin).

More recently it has become a matter of comment about the higher education system in these islands that, to a much greater extent than those in other countries, it relies critically on full-time academic professionals, for whom an academic job was their first career choice. It has been suggested from time to time that universities would be more effective if a greater number of people moved between academic, business or other practice-based jobs and higher education. But assuming that the most likely major involvement by such people will be on a part-time basis, it it might also be asked whether an academy that increasingly relies on part-timers would become something rather different from what we now think it to be. If you consider that even academics who cannot right now find full-time jobs in universities for budgetary reasons may increasingly develop their teaching experience initially on a part-time basis, then you begin to see a higher education community that is fundamentally different and, necessarily, somewhat more detached.

So as not to be misunderstood,  am totally in support of engaging part-time faculty whose main work is in the outside world; they genuinely add an important dimension. But if they become numerically too dominant, other elements will be lost, including the idea of a community of scholars. I fear that the growth of part-timers at this time is being brought about for budgetary reasons – and from a pedagogical and scholarship point of view that’s not the best basis for such developments. As we consider what kind of institutions universities may be in a generation from now, we should perhaps reflect a little more about how part-time colleagues can  add significant value, and where we need to ensure that full-time academics are numerically strong enough to maintain a sense of dedicated scholarship.

… or is the solution to go entirely online?

March 21, 2011

As higher education budgets are hit more and more seriously, one US state (Washington) is considering a partnership with the entirely online university, Western Governors University, as a way of providing a cheaper option to allow more students to benefit from a state-saupported university degree. The subtext in some of the discussions in this instance is that a ‘traditional’ classroom university programme is becoming unaffordable, or at least cannot be adequately supported by the taxpayer.

Those opposed to a move of this kind have suggested that the kind of ‘deep thinking’ that students should be encouraged to pursue is not readily available in online programmes. Or is that wrong, and it all depends on how such programmes are devised and run?

Fees, debts and loans

March 21, 2011

Amidst the international turmoil around higher education funding, one aspect of the situation has started to encroach on public awareness: student (or graduate) debt. In England it has just been revealed that the 20 students with the largest debts owed to the Student Loans Company together owe more than £1 million, with the highest individual debt being £66,150. In the United States, where debts have been a feature for many years but where, in the light of major tuition fee increases recently, they have grown significantly, there is an overall level of graduate debt that exceeds that of credit card debt and now stands nationally at a staggering $900 billion; but it may be that the English authorities should note that even with those sums the average individual debt in the US is lower than what is now expected in England.

Student loans are sometimes presented as an easier option than straight fees, as higher education still remains free at the point of use. It is however arguable that loans have the potential to create a whole new set of problems. The British universities minister, David Willetts, has recently suggested that in reality the new post-Browne English framework is a form of graduate tax. If that is so, then it would be better to structure it that way, thereby removing what may become the major deterrent effect of large debt. Or it might be better to set fees for the wealthier students only, payable on entry to university, while creating better grants and financial supports for those less able to pay.

And for those who believe that a totally free form of higher education is best of all, it nay be important to reflect on the fact that a university system thrown into penury is in the end not a better outcome.

The complexities and contradictions of being an Irish academic

March 20, 2011

If anyone wondered whether there really is a lack of sympathy amongst the wider Irish public for academics and their working practices, the piece of what is described as ‘analysis’ by Eamon Delaney in today’s Sunday Independent should dispel that quickly enough. In fact, as anyone familiar with universities will know, much of what he writes in assessment of today’s Irish higher education institutions is total nonsense, but getting that across is made much more difficult by the fact that what he presents as facts and figures is on the whole correct. Salaries are what he says they are, the universities’ financial positions are as he describes, and what he says has been said has indeed been said (if you can follow that).

The recent campaign, described on this site and elsewhere over the past couple of months, to safeguard academic freedom has to many people (very unfairly) come across as a campaign to protect the special vested interests of an already privileged group, who uniquely are insisting on being exempted from what everyone else is having to endure. The reality is of course different. Academics have taken their pay cuts and have seen their working hours increased dramatically as hordes of new and unfunded students enter the higher education system; and at the same time the demands on them in terms of research have grown also, as colleges try to shore up their positions by winning more funds. While academic pay looks good to many observers, it is being earned by people who have longer and more demanding training than almost anyone else in society, and the top earners in the academic ranks have by now probably lost about 30 per cent of their take home pay, compared with what it was three years ago; and they still have mortgages based on what they once earned.

However, if anyone were to think that what Delaney writes is not what the general population thinks, they should disabuse themselves of that. His comments are wholly typical of what is being said ‘out there’; the idea that Irish academics are a privileged group trying to protect their privileges is taken as fact. So why can a different and more nuanced message not be got across successfully?

There are a number of reasons. But one of the more significant ones is this: nobody speaks to the general public on behalf of universities. Academic staff meeting in the Gresham Hotel and elsewhere seem, as far as the messages ‘getting out’ are concerned, to be chiefly engaged in a campaign of war against their own university managements, rather than, say, government or regulatory bodies. University management and their representatives (in the IUA) on the other hand are, as far as the public can perceive, totally silent, and whatever is done by them is done behind closed doors. The result is that the noise about the Croke Park agreement, far from opening up some sympathy for the academy, is further damning it in the public mind. Colourful attacks by somewhat long-in-the-tooth senior academics on their own institutions and how they are led probably sound good to internal dissenters, but will not enhance academic reputations in the wider world.

As the recent ‘employment control framework’ events have shown, the Irish academy is under siege by a set of decision-makers who don’t understand it and who want to turn it into a more familiar type of public service bureaucracy. What these events have also shown is that when the academic community and its leaders work together, public perceptions can be influenced: my prediction is that the ECF will be revoked, and when that happens the remarkably united campaign of the past week or so will have been the critical reason for this. There is a lesson there. All those involved in Irish higher education must work together to present their case, in a united manner, and to do it consistently. There is too much to lose otherwise.


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