Archive for June 2011

Kader Asmal, RIP

June 23, 2011

I have just heard the sad news of the passing away of Professor Kader Asmal. I hope that most readers will know who he was, but for those who might not, I should explain that Kader was a South African (who spent a long period in exile), an academic lawyer, an anti-apartheid activist, a human rights campaigner and a politician.

I got to know him first when I was a student in Trinity College Dublin and he was a senior lecturer. Kader was an amazing teacher. Intellectually curious about everything, irreverent about most things, side-splittingly witty, wholly passionate. He had no concept whatsoever of time. His lectures could last some 40 minutes longer than the allotted span, with fuming staff and students waiting outside for the venue to be vacated, but nobody inside the hall cared. He and his wonderful spouse Louise issued open invitations to all students to join them for tea at their home on a weekend. He had strong views but loved a good argument, and appreciated those who had a go. Throughout it all, and despite the impact on his health, he was the most extraordinary chain smoker I have ever known.

In my own case, when at one point I needed to take a complex decision about where I was going in my life, he offered me advice in a spirit almost of parental concern: he kept calling on me to see him, again and again, until he was satisfied that I had made the right choice. I shall never forget that generosity of spirit.

Later, for a few years, we were colleagues in TCD. When apartheid collapsed in South Africa he returned home and satisfied a deep longing he had felt during his involuntary (but not unhappy) exile. He became Professor of Law at the University of the Western Cape, and subsequently a government Minister in Nelson Mandela’s government, staying on for Mbeki. Eventually he left active politics on a matter of principle. He made a huge contribution to post-apartheid politics in South Africa, and this newspaper summary will undoubtedly be seen as accurate:

‘Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum last night for a man widely regarded for his outstanding moral rectitude, his people-centred political ideas and his unflinching independence – a personal characteristic he displayed humbly to the very end.’

I last met Kader on February 24 last year. He was on a visit to Ireland, and had written to me beforehand to suggest we have dinner. We did so in a Dublin city centre hotel, and Kader was in wonderful form. He was much frailer than before, but his spirit was indomitable. Recognising some other diners, he made hilarious and much too loud comments about them, some not too complimentary. But he also held court at the table, as one person after another came to greet him and share one or two reminiscences. His assessment of South Africa was downbeat: he believed the country he loved was becoming corrupt and unprincipled, and it pained him visibly. It was a wonderful, spirited, informative, lively, enriching evening.

I shall always be grateful to Kader Asmal, and will always remember him. He had interesting views on religion – he was not really a believer in the traditional sense, but he felt there was something more than the here and now and a saw himself as a seeker after spiritual truth of some kind. I suspect he will not be cross if I say that I hope he may rest in peace, and that Louise may find some comfort in the many many tributes pouring in.

University degree classifications: saying goodbye to borderline cases?

June 23, 2011

If you haven’t heard about the degree classification system, ‘grade-point average’ (GPA), then I suspect you are about to. It is used in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, and represents a different way of determining course outcomes; it is based on a mathematical calculation representing average marks for each grade. For example, if you get an ‘A’ you get 4 points (doing away with the attempt to capture numerically whether you were at the top, middle or lower end of the ‘A’ scale). In this part of the world we are used to differentiating between students getting marks, for example, of 62 and 68, though both are recorded as a 2.1. Our system creates impossibly complex discussions about borderline cases, based in part on the apparently real belief that you can tell the difference between 67 and 68 and can allow that difference to affect a degree classification outcome.

Now a number of English universities have announced that they may adopt the GPA method of determining degree results. According to a report in Times Higher Education, a Vice-Provost of one of these institutions, University College London, has explained the reason behind the proposed change as follows:

‘We’ve got a classification system that essentially divides the world of undergraduates into two tribes – those with a 2:1 and above and those with a 2:2 and below. That’s not helpful.’

It is probably time to look again at how we record learning outcomes in universities. In that sense at least it is useful that some universities have taken the initiative to try something different; their doing so may spark some necessary debate and, perhaps, reform.

Establishing new universities in Ireland

June 22, 2011

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes for the time allocated to the meeting to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

In the meantime of course, the report on a National Strategy for Higher Education – the Hunt report – set out a framework for converting clusters of institutes of technology (but not individual institutes) into ‘technological universities’ (chapter 8). The report suggested:

‘There may be a case for facilitating the evolution of some existing institutes following a process of consolidation, into a form of university that is different in mission from the existing Irish universities.’

The idea behind this therefore is that ‘technological’ universities would be something generically different from ‘normal’ universities, but would also be something different from existing institutes of technology. This would maintain a binary divide in Irish higher education, but apparently one that is qualitatively different, even if that difference is for now somewhat ill defined.

And so the Higher Education Authority has now published a set of possible criteria for this process, prepared by Simon Marginson, a higher education expert from the University of Melbourne, and on which the HEA is now inviting comments. In looking at these criteria, I am finding it difficult to see how these would clearly identify a university that is different from at least some of those already having that status. Picking up some of the criteria, they include scale (‘an institution large enough to be comparable with existing universities in Ireland’), international standing (‘developed international collaborations such as joint projects, student and staff exchange, and combined provision of programs’), industry links (‘curricula that are developed in close consultation with business, professional and occupational organizations’), research (‘a research strategy that foregrounds [sic] the applied research mission, links to enterprises and the contribution of the TU to innovation and knowledge transfer’), governance (‘a governing body that includes representatives of enterprises, occupations, professions and local communities’), and so on. While all these criteria would not necessarily describe all existing universities, they do cover things that all universities have or do at least some of the time. The difference appears to be mainly that the ‘technological universities’ will also offer programmes that are below honours degree level (as well as honours and postgraduate programmes).

I might stress here that I am not opposed to university status for Waterford. But I do believe that the criteria already contained in the Universities Act 1997 for university status are sufficient, and I don’t see a compelling reason for having different criteria for other institutions also to be called ‘university’. It will be interesting to see what views and opinions are expressed in response to this document by the HEA.

Irish higher education: employment control moderated

June 21, 2011

Without much noise, the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, with the agreement of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin TD, has introduced some fundamental changes to the not-much-loved ‘employment control framework’. Under the revised framework, universities will still  have what the document calls a ‘ceiling’ for posts funded by the recurrent grant, but beneath that ceiling institutions will now be able to act independently. Furthermore, they will be allowed to recruit to permanent posts, which is a particularly important change; under the original framework academic career structures had been seriously undermined.

Posts funded from other sources (including research grants and contracts) can also be filled, and now without authorisation and without any ceiling; but only on a fixed term basis and with full cost recovery.

Of further significance is the fact that promotions, within numerical limitations, will now also be possible again.

The ‘employment control framework’ in its original form was doing very serious damage to Irish higher education. It undermined institutional autonomy, it destroyed career progression, it made it difficult and occasionally impossible to organise large scale research projects, it compromised the ability of institutions to plan teaching programmes; in short, it was a disaster. The new revised framework is still not entirely unproblematical, but most of the objectionable aspects of the original have now been removed. This is a welcome development for the higher education system.

Scottish education opened up

June 21, 2011

A very large part of successful policy formulation is good communication and the facilitation of open dialogue. One particularly interesting experiment with this is the Scottish government’s Engage for Education website. This contains information on education initiatives and policies, but interestingly it also has an interactive blog. The bloggers here include the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MP, as well as his junior ministers and some education officials. But perhaps even more significant is the facility for comments by the general public on the site, thereby creating a forum for education debate.

So for example a post on early childhood education prompted a comment by a teacher, and this in turn was followed by a response by the Cabinet Secretary.

Openness in political communication is always good. This website is an excellent idea, and it should be used actively by all those involved in education.

Flying by the seat of her pants

June 21, 2011

Overheard this past weekend.

Passenger entering plane: ‘Where is seat 312?’
Cabin attendant: ‘You can sit anywhere you like.’
Passenger: ‘It says seat 312.’
Attendant: ‘No, this is flight 312.’
Passenger: ‘Where is 312?’
Attendant: ‘This is it. You’re on the right plane.’
Passenger: ‘Yes, but the seat?’
Attendant: ‘Anywhere you like.’
Passenger: ‘I’ll go to find seat 312.’
Attendant: ‘Good luck!’

The truly amazing world of UK immigration policy, and an assault on higher education

June 21, 2011

British immigration law and its administration appears to be based on one particular assumption: if you want to come to the UK, you’re up to no good. How this affects other areas of life may be a topic for another day; today I am principally concerned about the impact on higher education.

For those students from outside the EU aspiring to study in the UK, getting there (even with the best academic qualifications) is not easy. The UK Border Agency, which administers the immigration process, maintains a website that sets out the rules and facilitates online applications for a visa. But the process is horrendously complex, and the Agency also takes great care to make studying in Britain unattractive. So for example a student holding a so-called ‘Tier 4′ visa must leave the UK within four months of completing her/his studies; it is well known that for many coming to Britain the ability to work in the country for a while after graduation in order to recoup the costs of studying is a vital element in the decision to apply.

And now, universities are also having to become the kind of suspicious and apparently xenophobic bodies that will really upset international students. They can be given the status of a ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’, which provides them with somewhat more discretion in the process for recruiting overseas students. But they must then be zealous enforcers of immigration rules, and they must hold themselves in constant readiness in case the UK Border Agency decides to do a spot check on how they are carrying out their role, whether their paperwork is complete, and so forth.

The whole thing is totally crazy. Higher education is a major export service, and like all services it must, to be successful, meet the customer’s needs. Giving the aspiring student the impression that they are not really wanted is not clever practice. Some degree of regulation is not necessarily wrong, but the student’s experience with the national bureaucracy will influence how much they will find the studies to be of value and whether they will recommend a UK university education to others in their home country. In the meantime, the reported reduction of 230,000 student visas planned by the British government, in order to meet rather foolish immigration cuts targets, will again suggest to international students that they are not wanted.

One item on the list of powers to be transferred to the Scottish government from Westminster should perhaps be immigration policy. If England is determined to put international students off, there is no overwhelming need for Scotland to follow suit.

The academic presidency

June 20, 2011

It may have been noticed by some observers that Ireland now appears to consider academic experience to be a requirement for the Head of State. Ever since Paddy Hillery’s rather quiet presidency came to an end in 1990, the President has been a former academic. Furthermore, the two candidates likely to be the frontrunners this time – David Norris and Michael D. Higgins – are also both former academics.

The role of the head of state, when it is not combined with that of head of government as it is in the United States and France for example, is largely about developing and sharing the national narrative, and it is at the very least arguable that good academics have the right background for this. It is also good – or so I think at any rate – that the academic profession is able in this way to demonstrate this important contribution to national welfare. So I say, let the tradition of having an academic head of state continue; and maybe let it spread.

Taking risks with risks in universities

June 20, 2011

Anyone working in a corporate environment will know that, after 2001, everything changed. It was around that time that the Enron Corporation went bankrupt. Some of the key features of the bankruptcy and of the resulting fall-out were the role of directors, and the effectiveness of a company’s risk management. This had already been anticipated in Britain in 1999 in the Turnbull report (Internal Control: Guidance for Directors on the Combined Code), which had set out the importance of internal corporate control and risk management.  Anyway, after Enron all this quickly had an effect on the higher education world, as university governors became more directly aware of their personal responsibilities and (potentially) liabilities; and as governing bodies therefore became much more focused on the identification and management of risk.

It is easy to argue that this has all been a good thing. Indeed more recent revelations about incompetence and doubtful business practices in the banking world have probably helped to reinforce the post-Enron trend. Indeed reckless behaviour in business is not a good model for higher education. And yet, universities – already places in which strategic caution and complex decision-making are part of the traditional routine – may not always have been helped by the new culture. It is now increasingly common to assess academic strategy in terms of risk. But academic innovation is, or should be, about pushing ideas beyond the consensus and testing them in the unknown. Those who manage risk registers may feel that their efforts produce sounder policies, as indeed they possibly do. But they also breed an atmosphere of strategic timidity in which the unknown is regarded with suspicion.

A good illustration of how risk management is being pushed in the universities is the English funding council’s (HEFCE) ‘risk prompt list‘ for higher education institutions, which contains ’51 examples of potentially significant risk elements’ and which is now used as a template for risk management by many universities. If you read this, and if you imagine yourself assessing a university’s strategy by applying its various alarmist warnings, you could easily imagine a mindset emerging in which there is something like planning paralysis. If you keep asking yourself, constantly, about all the things that may go wrong, you become mesmerised by risk and you fail to address opportunity. Risk is suddenly seen everywhere. For example, one major world-leading university now has a Risk Steering Committee, a Risk Management Policy and a Risk Management Strategy; a whole risk industry. Other universities have whole bureaucracies dedicated entirely to risk management.

Clearly no sensible person would want to call for reckless planning. Understanding risks and seeking to contain them is as good a practice in universities as it is everywhere else. But risk management is not everything. It is merely a reality check. If you audit a university’s strategy, or that of a department, and do so solely by assessing the risks and how they are being handled, you cannot form any real sense of how well the institution is planning its future. It is time to create a better sense of balance between risk and innovation, and to understand that caution-driven consolidation is, in a fast changing world, also a major risk.

Big time computing

June 19, 2011

As some readers will know, I’m a big gadget fan, and whatever is new and at least somewhat affordable (or even not wholly affordable) has to be on my desk or in my pocket. So I usually have the very latest technology about me. But nevertheless, if someone says ‘computer’ my first thought will be of a lot of whirring disks and flashing lights on equipment that is big enough to take up much of the space in a large warehouse. And maybe punchcards (remember those?). Yes, I’m of the IBM generation. For me, computing still conjures up the old mainframe, and IBM is the corporate brand.

But then IBM was never just that. In fact the first IBM equipment I ever used was a ‘golfball’ typewriter. Many of you will have no idea what that was, but it looked like this, and here’s the golfball. For a brief while IBM was the gold standard in the typing pool, before the company’s main public image came to be associated with the personal computer, the ‘PC’. In the mid to late-1980s, the PC was referred to mostly as the ‘IBM-compatible’ computer. But then much cheaper imitations began to dominate the market, and it was the operating software that came to symbolise the PC: from ‘IBM’compatible’ to MS-DOS and then Windows-based. Eventually IBM disappeared completely from the technology it had opened up initially.

The company retreated back to its mainframe roots, but also advanced to services and software and data-related consulting. It has thrived in these areas, and has taken the lead in innovative R&D and some work on urban planning.

In the 1980s everyone, absolutely everyone, knew who IBM were. Today’s younger generation, I suspect, may often be quite unaware of the company. But its transformation is still an interesting success story in the technology sector.


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