Archive for April 2011

Targeting academic balance

April 30, 2011

If you have never heard of Andrew Breitbart, think yourself lucky. He is a man with a mission in the United States, mostly to do with combating anything he regards as liberal. He has maintained several websites dedicated to these pursuits, some of which use interesting techniques: secretly taken video footage is used to discredit people featured in them, usually people who are not on the more extreme end of the conservative spectrum.

His most recent outing into this kind of territory has been on his website, where he published edited video footage of two university lecturers in the University of Missouri explaining industrial relations tactics in the classroom. The extracts were edited to make it appear as if the lecturers were urging a partisan, pro-union approach on students, including the apparent condoning of violence. It later emerged that the extracts were shown totally out  of context, and that the lecturers were explaining how such views emerge, and were in no way representing them themselves; this was obscured by the editing.

In fact, education is is Breitbart’s sights. In a recent interview he announced that he would be setting up a new website,, and that this would be its mission:

‘Yeah, Big Education is probably going to be the most controversial one; teachers, professors, teachers unions. The ones who feel obligated to hit our children over the head with indoctrination are now going to be held accountable for the first time ever by new media. It allows the exposure of the algebra teacher who rails against Sarah Palin for a half hour; let’s do a video expose.’

In fact, this has become one of the key tactics of the US extreme right: to intimidate those who might wish to explain liberal policies in the classroom as part of the education process. The aim is to ensure that teachers must fear the consequences of presenting a balanced picture. In the process it is not just academic freedom that gets destroyed, but a sense of confidence in the value of dispassionate analysis. It is based on the assertion that only conservative views are factual and impartial, and that therefore only they deserve to be heard.

Of course conservative views do deserve to be heard objectively, but not as a monopoly source of all truth. The task of the teacher is to present all shades of opinion and to explain their background and origins.

Because of the noise created by Breitbart and his videos, one of the lecturers has resigned and has suggested that he may have been put under pressure to do so. It is time for Americans to take note that where the expression of facts and opinions becomes dangerous to academics, more than just academic integrity will suffer. Andrew Breitbart is a very dangerous man.


Sleepless in Aberdeen

April 30, 2011

I won’t tell you how late it is as I write this. But let us just say that, when I finish this post and head off to bed, it will be well after midnight. And I don’t mean 12.15 am. It is now Saturday, and so in the morning I’ll get up much later than usual, perhaps around 8 am. On a normal weekday it would be closer to 6.30 am. I am, in short, someone who doesn’t need that much sleep. This being so, I find it convenient and efficient to return to my office and do some more work most nights between 11 pm or so and the early morning.

However, according to reports and articles that kind friends sometimes feel obliged to give me, this isn’t healthy.  And now I’ve also been shown an article that says that working too many hours ‘markedly increases heart disease’. So it’s not looking good for me.

Actually, I have never felt that my own rather crazy working habits should be the norm, and I believe that it is important for all employers to encourage their employees to pursue a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Equally, however, we should find ways of being more flexible as regards working hours, so that we are not all regimented into the nine-to-five working day. Just as we need to think again about what should constitute the workplace, so also we should be more imaginative about working time.

In the meantime, if you want to email me and get a response at 1 am, feel free to do so. But don’t feel that you must.

The power of design

April 29, 2011

Welcome to the wedding-free zone…

Two news items yesterday told an interesting story. The Guardian newspaper (and others) reported that, for the first time in many years, the IT company Apple reported higher revenues and profits than Microsoft, thereby bringing to an end an era in which, at first, Apple was thought to be dying and Microsoft was thought to be so dominant that its power eclipsed that of many countries. Now Microsoft is stagnating, while Apple is the company that appears to be unable to do anything wrong in business terms.

Also yesterday, there were reports all over the world of customers queuing in extraordinary numbers to buy the newly released white iPhone 4. In Hong Kong all available supplies had been sold within hours. The extraordinary aspect of this news item is that the white iPhone does absolutely nothing that its non-white counterpart (which has been on sale for nearly a year) cannot do – and yet hordes of people, many of whom already own the iPhone 4, are buying it; and are doing so despite that fact that insiders believe the iPhone 5 will be launched later this year.

In fact, it is likely that many iPhone customers are standing in line not because the handset is technologically superior to what is offered by the competition, but because of its aesthetic appeal. It just looks good. It feels right. And according to this report, some customers believe it makes them appear younger and more attractive. Apparently.

So what’s all this then? Is this the world gone mad, sacrificing substance to superficiality? No, I don’t think so. Design and appearance matter to humans, on the whole. We appreciate art; we are influenced by style and fashion. Commercial design that engages these instincts, as Apple has been so good at showing, triggers something that goes beyond appreciation of technological discovery. When the two are combined, however, the result is powerful. Apple’s rise and rise has been due to the way in which Steve Jobs and his team have understood this and harnessed its potential. It is an interesting story.

I’ll bet that when the in-crowd in Westminster Abbey switch their phones to silent, a majority will be handling iPhones. Oh wait, I wasn’t going to mention that.

Ireland: so what *has* happened to the ’employment control framework’?

April 28, 2011

After the anger generated in the Irish university community over the second phase of the government’s ’employment control framework’ (under which staff recruitment and promotions in higher education are heavily restricted by the state), it might be asked what has happened to the whole thing. There had been some hints from the new Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, that there might be a re-think, but since then there has been only silence. We do not know for sure whether there have been talks between the Irish Universities Association and the government, but we must assume that this is so.

But whether the government might be having second thoughts is far from clear. Yesterday the Minister, addressing the annual conference of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, ‘firmly ruled out lifting the public service moratorium on filling promotional posts in schools, such as those of assistant principals and year heads.’ This is a reference to the related restrictions that apply to the public service more generally; but the Minister’s unwillingness to allow any flexibility in this scheme does not suggest an easy solution for higher education will be possible.

And that, I believe, would be a major mistake, and would undermine the capacity of universities to contribute to new economic growth. It is important to keep up the pressure in this matter.

Life’s soundtrack

April 28, 2011

Recently I attended a public lecture by a noted academic, and was intrigued that before he began his address he took out an iPod and attached it to a sound system and switched it on. It played the ‘Trout Quintet‘ by Schubert. After we had listened to the music for perhaps four or five minutes, he switched off the equipment and proceeded to deliver his talk, which (in case you are wondering) was not in any way connected with Schubert’s piece; nor did he at any point explain why he had played it. I have to say I rather liked what he had done, not just because it is a wonderful piece, but because there was something nicely civilised about the whole experience.

Maybe I reacted positively because, on this occasion, we were really being invited to sit quietly and listen. Far too often these days music is part of a background soundtrack, played but not listened to. In the department store, or the café; the busker on the street who gets paid money as a substitute for listening rather than a reward for playing; the pianist in the hotel lounge who has 100 ways of playing tunes from Lloyd Webber musicals but who never really has an audience. But music, I think, is a form of cultural language and really needs to be listened to. It is not wallpaper that softens the background.

Anyway, I approached the lecturer afterwards and said I appreciated the Schubert piece, and he told me he does this at the beginning of most lectures he delivers to students. He said it puts them in the mood for listening and engaging with his subject. It’s an interesting approach. He may be right.

In a spin

April 27, 2011

The journal Times Higher Education has published an interesting piece on university spin-out companies. According to research done by an organisation called Spinouts UK, over the past 10 years UK universities were able to form well over 1,000 companies, mainly in order to commercialise the institutions’ intellectual property. The top performer in the list is the University of Edinburgh, with 244 companies, followed by the University of Cambridge with 139. On the other hand many universities did not produce any spin-outs at all, and a more typical number for those that did would be in the region of 5-10. My own university, RGU in Aberdeen, was able to spin out 12.

But what should we make of this? How important is it for universities to establish companies in order to develop their IP, and how successful is this likely to be? The answer is just a little ambivalent. For a start, in my experience universities often over-estimate the benefits of spin-outs. Companies are formed as part of a commercialisation drive, but most end up doing little or no business while still running up costs and complex corporate governance. Where universities want to commercialise intellectual property, the route of licensing the IP is normally the better option. But in any case, universities should not register and commercialise IP unless they are willing to defend it. In the early stages this can be an expensive business, so some funds need to be available.

On the other hand, injecting some commercial discipline into the exercise is good, and companies can serve a useful purpose – indeed not only in commercialising IP. But it is important that proper thought goes into these decisions, with an awareness of the implications. At the end of it all, the number of companies formed is not a useful performance indicator. Income generated is, but that must be measured over a longer timeframe. Universities also need to have a good sense of what risks are worth taking (and some risks are inevitable, and need not be a deterrent), and how to arrange for good management and governance of the entities formed.

I am a strong believer in commercialisation as a university strategic aim in appropriate settings. Spin-outs can be an important component of such strategies. But setting up dozens of companies on the back of vague business plans is not a particularly good way to go, and institutions should not see this particular league table as one where they must try to hit the top numbers.

Saving the city

April 27, 2011

Some readers will know that I am now a resident of Aberdeen in Scotland. I work in Robert Gordon University, and my office is right in the middle of the city, a few yards from the main thoroughfare, Union Street. Aberdeen, known as the ‘Granite City’, has many elegant buildings and some very old alleyways with cobblestones, churches and historical features. It has a long and popular city beach, within walking distance of the centre. To the west are hugely attractive residential areas with impressive houses and well kept parks. Go to the south of the city, and you can travel along the River Dee, past the second (and growing) campus of my university towards some very pretty suburbs and nearby towns, towards the old market town of Banchory. And yet…

As I write this, it is well after midnight, and shortly I shall walk back to my city centre apartment. As I do so I shall pass some deserted buildings that once housed shops that have moved to modern and very impressive shopping centres. On Union Street I shall see groups of worse-for-wear young people, some of whom will be urinating against shop fronts, while others may be busily overturning litter bins and emptying the contents on the pavement. There will be much noise, and a fairly wild atmosphere. The shops I’ll pass that are still in business are predominantly mobile phone shops and ‘pound shops’, on a street that was designed for elegance rather than economy. It now looks run down.

None of this is peculiar to Aberdeen; it is the story of our cities today. As people’s shopping habits have changed, city authorities have been at a loss as to what to do with the old city centres. Because it is visibly clear that the authorities have no special vision for these areas, the citizens haven’t seen the need to show any respect for them either.

But this isn’t good enough any more. It is not just that we should want to maintain cities that are aesthetically pleasing, we should be aware that running them down has wider effects. A neglected city centre discourages local investment, not least because it raises questions about quality of life. Social problems become more widespread, and we gnaw away at the determination to improve conditions.

Don’t get me wrong about Aberdeen. I have only been here a month, but I already feel a strong affection for it and affinity with it. There is nothing here that cannot be fixed. Indeed, the Chancellor of my university, Sir Ian Wood, has promised a substantial sum of money to renew an area of city gardens in order to regenerate the centre. It has become really important that some steps are taken, and with a degree of urgency. All over the developed world we have known for decades now that shops will tend to move to shopping centres and malls. We must not just let the areas they leave behind become dilapidated and unloved. We must restore our cities. And it can be done.

Privatising higher education

April 26, 2011

From time to time it has been suggested by critics of recent reforms in higher education that university heads want to ‘privatise’ their institutions. Mostly this charge has been without any real foundation. That, however, does not mean that privatisation cannot happen. Indeed, a report in yesterday’s Times newspaper suggests it may become a reality in England much sooner than anyone might have anticipated.

According to the report, the British government is considering handing over ‘failing universities’ in England to private companies to run them. And if you were wondering what that means, the article in the Times suggests that BPP, the private higher education provider, may already have been lined up to undertake this role. The company’s chief executive, Carl Lygo, knows exactly how he would tackle the job, according to the Times:

‘Mr Lygo said that the first step for anyone taking over the management of a university would be to cut or merge functions already covered by its head office, such as finance team, marketing or public relations. He said: “I have looked through some of the university cost base and I think we could probably save them, just on procurement savings alone, 25 per cent of their cost base, which is obviously very interesting to government”.’

If this is really being contemplated, it would be a much more radical change in English higher education than anything that has ever been done before. Its significance would not lie in how much a private company could generate in savings or efficiencies, but rather in the overall understanding of how higher education works and what it is supposed to achieve. However good BPP may be at what it does, it is a training institution, not a university. This would not be a minor change or a new efficiency drive, it would represent a different understanding of the nature and purpose of a university. Even if such a change is right, it requires a much more thorough discussion before it could or should be contemplated.

Interesting times, south of the border. Or maybe scary.

On the way to the Senate

April 26, 2011

If you are a graduate of the National University of Ireland or the University of Dublin, or if you are a member of the Oireachtas, or if you are an elected local authority member, or if you are the Taoiseach, then you are a voter in the second phase of the Irish parliamentary elections of 2011: the election of members of Seanad Éireann (Senate). This phase is about to conclude with the counting of votes on Wednesday of this week. The easiest vote to count will be that of the Taoiseach, who has the power to appoint 11 members of the Upper House. 43 Senators will be elected by special vocational ‘panels’; or rather that’s how they are described, but in reality they are just members of parliament and county councillors. Whether any of this makes sense is a question for another time.

What I want to focus on here is the election of six Senators by the graduates of the universities. I won’t however go into the question of whether this is justifiable at all as a way of electing members of parliament; nor will I dwell on the extraordinary contempt of the electorate shown by the political system in not extending the franchise to graduates of other higher education institutions (not least the two excluded universities) despite an instruction by the people in a referendum decades ago to do so. Nor am I going to talk about the 27 candidates competing for the three NUI seats.

Instead, I am going to look at some of the 20 candidates for the University of Dublin (Trinity College) seats. In fact, I am going to do something even more specific than that: I am going to ask what plans if any they have for higher education.  I am myself a voter in this constituency, and have just posted my ballot paper. When I received it, I was faced with having to work out what some of these candidates actually stand for. I had never heard of some of them, and I have received no election literature from 11 of the 20 candidates. However, there is always the internet.

The first candidate I looked at more closely was Marc Coleman, economics editor of radio station Newstalk and columnist in the Sunday Independent. He has made rather a name for himself criticising academic pay and conditions and pouring scorn on the value of university-led research. Funnily enough none of this makes any appearance on his election website, though it dominates the exchanges on his Twitter account. But overall it is impossible to say for sure what position he will adopt on higher education if elected.

Sean Barrett, another economist and TCD senior lecturer, is arguing the case for more investment in education, but principally earlier education rather than universities. His fairly intelligent analysis is rather let down by a website that is full or the most extraordinary typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, which might not be a good way or presenting his case.

Outgoing Senator (and TCD academic) Ivana Bacik shows a fair degree of passion about university access for the disadvantaged, but does not particularly put forward any overall higher education perspective.

Outgoing Senator David Norris, whom I genuinely admire, seems not to be presenting himself very actively for the Seanad; his website does not disclose any of his policies or plans – perhaps because his attention is now more directed at the presidential elections later this year, for which he is a declared candidate.

Barrister Graham Quinn declares on his website he wants to maintain ‘free fees’, but apart from that I cannot find anything of substance about higher education. Unusually for the candidates, homemaker Bart Connolly expresses strong views on research funding, declaring his support for it.

What is my point? It is that we are talking about an election in which candidates are standing for university seats, but really none of them appear to have any overall policies on higher education.  The manifestos are extraordinary collections of policies on this and that, but actually very little on the issue that should have driven them more than any other.

So what have I done? I have taken my role seriously, and have voted in accordance with what I know about the candidates that will be of relevance to the university sector. It has not been the easiest of tasks.

Is your tuition fee a status symbol?

April 25, 2011

For those observing the admittedly extraordinary spectacle of tuition fee announcements by English universities, a statement by one university head may have raised eyebrows even more. The Vice-Chancellor of Teesside University, Professor Graham Henderson, in announcing tuition fees of £8,500 (just below the maximum permitted) was reported in the Daily Telegraph as saying that ‘imposing fees “at the bottom of the spectrum” would make undergraduates feel substandard.’

So is this true? Will students conclude that any university charging £7,000 must be nearly 30 per cent worse than all those institutions charging £9,000? Indeed is Professor Henderson suggesting to his undergraduates that their university is just over 5 per cent less good than, say, nearby Newcastle University or Brighton University down south, but 6 per cent or so better than the University of Derby? And more to the point, do students really see it this way? Are Teesside students mightily relieved and pleasantly re-assured that their fees will be £8,500 rather than £6,000?

Professor Henderson is not alone in this view; other university heads have suggested something similar. But this is driving higher education into quite absurd realms, where it is intended to persuade us that students will be influenced positively by high fees. It underscores again the bizarre impact of the new English funding and resourcing framework. The fear must be that English higher education is being seriously compromised by it. Others will hope that this effect can be contained within England.