Archive for August 2011

An egalitarian culture, or neglect of achievement?

August 22, 2011

It is sometimes said, with good reason, that universities are amongst the most hierarchical organisations of any in society. It may well be that in the general run of academic discourse, and in recognition of academic freedom, one opinion is as valued as another (though in fact that is arguable); but in terms of personal recognition, status, support, facilities and general terms, universities celebrate status and attach benefits to it in a way that many corporate business organisations have long left behind.

Perhaps the key to all this is the professoriate. In the British and Irish framework of university practice, very few academics make it to professorial status. Those that do are thereby recognised as having made exceptional contributions to the academy, particularly (often exclusively) in scholarly output. It is in fact sometimes claimed that professors, like football strikers, sometimes achieve celebrity status because they are selfish players, scoring off the groundwork laid down by others. Lest anyone assume that this is necessarily my view, I should add immediately that I know many professors who work selflessly in the interests of their colleagues. But I also know there are other cases.

Of course in the American tradition it is different, and all those with tenure tend to be styled professor, even those who are quite junior. This doesn’t mean that it is an egalitarian system, but it provides more status for the academic community as a whole, particularly in its dealings with the outside world. Some universities on this side of the Atlantic have been looking at this model, and the latest to do so is Trinity College Dublin, which decided to change to an ‘all-professor’ framework for academic staff at its board meeting of June 29. A lecturer will now be an ‘Assistant Professor’, a senior lecturer will be an ‘Associate Professor’, an existing Associate Professor will be a ‘Professor’, and existing professors will remain what they are.

What will this change bring about? Will it push other institutions, for reasons of comparability and to ensure that they can compete for staff, take the same decision? Should it in fact have been a sector-wide one? And will the new framework make the system less hierarchical? Will it suggest that scholarly achievement is no longer rewarded as clearly? Or will it all make no difference whatsoever?

Steadying Irish higher education

August 21, 2011

Over the past few days in Ireland there has been some talk about the possible education – and higher education – reforms that may now be planned by the government. This was prompted by a report in the Irish Independent giving details of a paper submitted last year by the Department of Education to the Department of Finance. The context of the paper was the continuing public funding crisis in Ireland, and therefore the search for savings.

The authors of the paper had suggested that what has previously been known as the ‘student registration charge’ (but which under the last Budget of the Fianna Fail/Greens administration was actually designated the ‘student contribution charge’) might rise to €3,000 per annum. Around the same time, as we have already noted in this blog, the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, indicated the there would not be a proposal for a student loan system to fund tuition fees.

The memorandum reported by the Irish Independent probably cannot be seen as representing government policy, in that it was part of the search for a Budget savings by the last government. Nevertheless, the overall mood music now is that there is a serious funding gap, that the taxpayer cannot afford to fill it, and that student contributions may be unavoidable. While this latter point has not ben confirmed by the government, it has not been denied either.

However, important though a solution to the funding crisis is, there is more to be done. The higher education system in Ireland has been subjected to unprecedented criticism and hostility over recent months; its community is facing low morale, enormous pressures due to the consequences of the employment control framework and its impact on staffing levels, and a lack of self-confidence. This is damaging in part because higher education is the key ingredient of economic recovery, and it needs some nurturing and support.

It is important that the structural and financial changes to be introduced in the Irish higher education system proceed quickly, so that stability and sustainability can return. Doing so is ultimately in the national interest.

The fragility of human civilisation

August 20, 2011

Right now I am spending three days in Dublin. This afternoon I was driving through the city centre, and as I was driving down a very busy street a car came up on the lane to my right, from behind me, and without any warning whatsoever and with screeching tyres pushed into my lane in front of me, and achieved this by driving so close to the right side of my car that he hit my wing mirror, blowing his horn and making hand gestures of a graphic kind. He was driving a Mercedes sports car.

I was not pleased, but didn’t do anything beyond also briefly blowing my horn. We then proceeded to the next street and I lost sight of him. But there at the next traffic light we ended up next to each other in adjacent lanes. Seeing me again – and I did nothing – he got out of the car, insisted I wind down my window (which I did) and then informed me: “I’m going to crack your f***ing head open’. Before I could say anything he thumped his fist on to the top of my car. He then returned to his own car and drove off. I reported the incident to the police, as I don’t believe that such behaviour should go entirely unchecked. He’ll do it again otherwise. Well, he probably will anyway.

From his car, and indeed from his clothes, it was clear that this man is solidly middle class and probably a respected member of the community. But what community is that?  How can we be so insecure that we can so easily become monsters, and that we don’t see the monstrosity as a major cause for alarm? Of course there is plenty of research on road rage. In 1997 a presentation given to the British Psychological Society found that road rage perpetrators were likely to be ‘older, better off and more respectable’. In his paper John Groeger, then Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Surrey, warned that road rage risked becoming ‘a legitimate form of anti-social behaviour’.

In fact, it shares with all other violent behaviour the characteristic that it may go unchecked because, so often, the victims are intimidated. Of course in some cases road rage can emerge between two active participants (and the same research indicated it was usually men against men, and women against women – rarely men against women), but where that is not the case it is quite likely that the victim will just let it go. I suspect our society is too vulnerable for that to be a safe option. And in all honesty, I tend to doubt that these raging pillars of the community are wonderfully peaceful and sensitive human beings in all other contexts and settings.

So, if ever I see something like this again, targeted against another fellow road user, I shall try to make sure that I volunteer to the victim to be a witness. We have to try to make at least some effort to protect our fragile community.

The perfect storm for higher education – what should be done?

August 19, 2011

It is probable that one of the large accountancy firms would not be seen by some in the higher education community as the obvious source of sympathetic advice. Still, it may be useful to consider some of the findings recently published by Deloitte about the risks and pressures facing global higher education. The report suggests that universities are facing a perfect storm, caused by the coming together of reduced budgets, difficulties in recruiting staff and students and growing competition. One could add to this the acceleration of bureaucratic regulation, public hostility towards the academic profession, and scepticism about quality and standards.

Against this backdrop, Deloitte asked education specialists from the firm’s offices in seven countries to make recommendations that might lead to a revival of the fortunes of higher education. Some of the resulting suggestions are not ground-breaking. For example, the report recommends that universities should ‘explore new revenue opportunities’, which is undoubtedly good advice but hardly new. But there are some comments which may be useful, such as the recommendation that universities need to learn to pursue strategic priorities rather than just behave opportunistically, or that universities should look at ways of improving environmental performance both as a strategic goal and as a contribution towards cutting costs.

But where the report is probably most useful is in its emphasis on the need for higher education institutions to get better at adapting to changing circumstances quickly and finding ways of making these changes work to their advantage. It is also good that this major accounting firm is showing interest in and support for global higher education. In these rather troubling times, universities need supporters.

Securing the future of Irish higher education

August 18, 2011

Irish higher education, the engine that drove the Irish economy forward in recent decades by providing skilled graduates for the major investments by ICT companies in the 1990s and by acting as magnet for knowledge-intensive investment and start-ups over the past ten years or, so continues to face major problems. By common consent – and this includes the view of the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD – it is seriously under-funded and cannot realistically perform the tasks set for it. It has been buffeted by public criticism of the quality of its graduates. It has been told that it now faces an era of much heavier regulation.

Over recent years the university presidents have called for the reintroduction of tuition fees in order to off-set reductions in public funding and in order to protect the universities’ ability to compete internationally and maintain high levels of quality.  This call for tuition fees has been accompanied by the proposal that they should be made affordable through the provision of student loans. However, doubts have arisen – prompted in part by the controversial higher education reforms in England – whether students will be able to carry debts of this magnitude and whether in consequence there is a likelihood of significant default or non-repayment of loans.

Now the Minister has announced that, whatever funding framework may be found, it will not involve student loans. He is right to decide the issue in this way. Student loans excessively delay the provision of funds and create a major uncertainty as to the amounts likely to be raised. They also obscure the more urgent need of redirecting some of the fee income (if there are fees) to socio-economically disadvantaged students to ensure that they are not discouraged from entering higher education.

However, given the consensus on the inadequacy of current funding levels, it is now urgent that a resourcing plan for higher education is finalised and announced. The current financial uncertainty is undermining the capacity of the sector to support Irish economic recovery.

Views of Aberdeen

August 18, 2011

This is a slightly different view of Aberdeen. I liked the combination of the early morning light and the rows of cars. The photo was taken at 6 am one morning in July 2011.

the street

Collegiality, the frank expression of views and the university community

August 17, 2011

A recent short news item in the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye. A professor at Santa Barbara Community College had written what is described as a ‘scathing internal memorandum’, seriously attacking his head of department and accusing him inter alia of ‘lewd behaviour’. The whole episode made its way into the Californian courts, and there not was ruled that there was no defamation because the memo had been written ‘without malice’.

I won’t suggest whether the court was right or wrong, not least because I don’t know enough about the details of the case to be able to do so. But it does strike me that what one might euphemistically describe as frank expressions of opinion are common currency in academic exchanges of views, partly because academics are encouraged to present and defend their views and positions in a robust manner. For anyone involved in management positions in universities it is not a rare experience to hear from colleagues who have been hurt or who feel stressed by such experiences.

Of course as academics we value freedom of speech and academic freedom. But I wonder whether we sometimes care enough about the way in which the exercise of these freedoms can undermine those other key characteristics of successful academic institutions, collegiality and goodwill. Is it really an expression of academic freedom to launch personal attacks, and is there not a risk that these will generate an atmosphere in which less forceful faculty retreat from participation in discourse so as not to find themselves in the firing line? In fact, can this problem be aggravated by the use of email, particularly when widely circulated, to launch harsh criticisms of others?

I am quite willing to believe that the Santa Barbara professor did what he did without malice. But I don’t think he was setting a good example. And I don’t think people should hide behind academic freedom when launching personal attacks.

Universities and the ‘broken society’

August 16, 2011

For some time now the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been talking about what he calls Britain’s ‘broken society’. This theme has been part of his message since 2008 at least. Back then he listed the elements of the broken society as ‘issues of family breakdown, welfare dependency, failing schools, crime, and the problems that we see in too many of our communities.’ In the wake of the unrest in parts of England he was back to his theme yesterday, this time referring to ‘children without fathers, schools without discipline and communities without control.’ He stressed that his ministers would be told to ‘review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society’, and that he would in particular instigate ‘all out war on gangs and gang culture’.

It is, I believe, hugely important for politicians, who when faced with some crisis or other feel under pressure to ‘do something’, to put the scene into an historical perspective. Nothing we experience is ever as new as we think. Britain, or indeed any other country, does not particularly have a more ‘broken society’ now than it did in the past. A quick journey through the pages of a Dickens novel will quickly reveal a far more broken society than we are likely to discover today. Unrest, looting, anarchism, riots did not suddenly emerge, without any historical precedent, in 2011. They have some longevity, and this being so are unlikely to be amenable to a quick political fix in time for a general election cycle.

But if there is an interesting question here, it is how we see, understand, sustain and protect communities; or indeed, how we identify them. This week I have moved into a new home on a new (to me) street in a new town in a new country (Scotland), and I have been struck by the warmth of the welcome from people living several houses away, who I might have imagined would pay little attention to our arrival. There is a community there. Even in the responses to the English riots there were significant elements of community spirit and concern.

I don’t believe that today’s society is ‘broken’, and I am far from sure that it helps to describe it in this way; indeed doing so may reinforce the behaviours that are thought to be symptomatic of ‘brokenness’ Nor, frankly, do I subscribe to what I think is the rather facile suggestion that violent riots, at least in England, are an expression of political resistance to expenditure cutbacks. What may however be the matter is that it has become hard to see what constitutes today’s ‘society’ and how it could be held together, and this is in part because there is so little understanding of where to find contemporary communities. There has been some very interesting academic analysis on this – I would mention Benedict Anderson and Robert Bellah – and it might be useful to think a little more about the nature and purpose of social communities before setting out to fix them.

Society needs a successful narrative if it is to work, and one of our problems is that the narrative has become disjointed. It is the task of our universities in particular to re-energise this debate and to provide materials for the re-discovery of the community. It is an important task.

Qualifying higher education

August 15, 2011

No educator likes this kind of talk, but if we were to accept for a moment and for the sake of argument that universities are selling something, what is it? Although it is very hard to identify the real nature of the transaction or exchange, we do know that we get money (whether in sufficient quantity or otherwise), and we know that we undertake an activity connected with that payment. But if someone is buying something, who is that someone and what are they buying?

There are several possible answers to this question, but let us now assume that the purchaser is the student (which is increasingly true in a number of countries). Would the student believe that his or her tuition fee is paying for an education, or would they maybe say it is for a qualification? In  other words, if the university invited students to take a programme of study but declined to offer any formal qualification at the end, would the students still come? Or at least, would so many of them?

In some ways the educational bureaucracy has long made the assumption that the qualification is what the bargain is all about, ever since the quality assurance movement got under way. That movement assumes that the ‘quality question’ of higher education is whether the educational process, leading to a degree or diploma, was correctly administered and is consistent across the higher education sector. But that is not a question about pedagogy (or arguably even about educational standards): it is a question about the consistency, transparency and efficiency of outputs.

I am not suggesting that quality assurance mechanisms are bad (though when badly administered, they are). Rather, I am reminding myself (and others if they are interested) that we have become rightly concerned to monitor how educational institutions fulfil their mission, but that we ask surprisingly few questions about the real nature of learning and what it entails. We are sucked into process, but not into experience. As a result the gold standard of higher education is the exit qualification, and graduates can take that to their new employers and often need not worry whether they will be able to explain anything they have learned.

It is time to look again at education in a context other than its formal elements of delivery and assessment. It is time for us to be clearer about what we want education to do. And I really would prefer not to be told that it’s just there for its own sake.

The waiting game

August 14, 2011

I know this is hardly a unique experience, but over the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time waiting for the services of certain tradespeople. Plumbers, electricians, officials handing out licences or authorisations, deliveries from shops of goods paid for a while ago, and so on. But actually, waiting is part of our everyday fabric now. It is almost impossible these days to ring an office or company or retail outlet without hearing some electronic version of Bach and an invitation to press ‘4’, followed by the hash key, if I actually want to talk to anyone.

On Friday I was in a public office applying for a permit. I could have done this by post, but the office is close to mine and I thought I’d save everyone the postage by going there directly. I waited for about an hour and 20 minutes. I got my permit, and I cannot fault the person who served me (who was polite and helpful), but nevertheless it was all built around the modern culture of unnecessary waiting.

Also during the past few days I ordered some goods that I wanted to have delivered, and was offered a date some three weeks away. When I pressed them to arrange something much earlier, I was eventually offered the next day. When I asked why they hadn’t suggested that in the first place, the very nice young man serving me conceded that he just automatically went for a date a few weeks later, as that seemed ‘more natural’.

Is my problem that I  just dislike deferred gratification, or have we constructed certain social norms that are calculated to inconvenience and unsettle? In fact, do we do any of this in education also?