Archive for September 2011

So, what makes a great university?

September 29, 2011

In anticipation of the publication shortly of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the THE has invited Twitter followers to declare succinctly what makes a university great. The responses, which I believe are mainly from younger and mid-career academics, are interesting. Here’s a sample:

• A place about minds, not behinds. Now try + measure that!
• Being called The University of Sheffield, of course 😉
• Cheese.
• A great University is the community of great teachers and scholars.
• A great univ = place that is intellectually risk tolerant
• The students.
• GreatUni=A Uni where professors hav balance between passion for subject, ability to teach it 2 others & facilities to do so.
• A great univ = place that is intellectually risk tolerant.
• 1 that stimulates creativity, tantalizes intellect thus inspiring students to author theculture of their time.

In many ways our ability to discern what constitutes ‘greatness’ in higher education is becoming more and more important. As universities become more vulnerable to funding cuts and bureaucratisation, their ability to persuade the government (and the public) that what they do matters and needs to be protected will become vital. This is not just a responsibility of university managers, but of the whole academic community.

If there is to be a persuasive case, it needs to be less general (and banal) than some of the attempts above. The academy needs to be able to respond better to people’s expectations of higher education, and this means that we must understand those expectations better. A great university is more than a place with great and even tolerant minds: it is a place that does something with these. It is the difference we makes that makes us great.


Morning sunlight, and clouds

September 29, 2011

The photograph below was taken on a recent visit to Dublin. It was early in the morning, not long after sunrise. In the East the sun was shining brightly, while in the West dark clouds had gathered. The effect of the sunlight shining on Gandon’s magnificent Custom House, and the rather less magnificent but very visible high rise Liberty Hall, against the backdrop of the clouds was quite stunning.

Dublin's Custom House: sunlight and clouds

What’s another year?

September 29, 2011

How long should a degree programme fit for the modern world be? Two years? Three? Four? More? This is an issue that is certain to be increasingly hotly debated, as both universities and governments search for ways in which public money can be saved.

Right now there are European processes that are moving towards some standardisation regarding programme length, but in the meantime the pressure on institutions is to make them shorter. This is a matter of special interest in Scotland, where most degree programmes run for four years (as against the English standard of three years). But now Dundee University has decided to give a lead, and so it has announced that in future some (but not all) of its courses will be shorter. This has created some negative reactions amongst educationalists, but has also brought out some supporters of the change.

In what way does this matter? It does so primarily because the duration of a degree programme should not be seen to be just an organisational matter. It should be part of a significant pedagogical debate in the academy. It may well be that, at the end of this process and Bologna notwithstanding, there will be a greater variety of undergraduate programmes, with an array of teaching methods and pedagogical perspectives. The length of a programme may come to be determined by such perspectives.

Views of Aberdeen

September 28, 2011

This is the gate, from Union Street, into the churchyard of the Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen.

The gate into the Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen

Single sex education: good or bad?

September 28, 2011

About 15 years ago I attended a lecture by an educational psychologist who argued, strongly, that in order to maximize educational advantage and improve young people’s constructive contributions to society all boys should be educated in co-educational schools, and all girls in single sex institutions. Boys taught in all-male environments were, we were told, often not well adjusted and were educational under-performers, while girls attending all-female schools worked better, were less distracted and reached their full potential more quickly and securely. He concluded that the paradox had to be resolved in favour of single sex education, because the benefit for girls outweighed the risks for boys.

Single sex education at university level is more or less a thing of the past in western countries, but single sex secondary schools are still often seen as worthwhile. Even in liberal circles that would not countenance education segregated on any other grounds, single sex schools are often seen as good and educationally superior. But is this justified?

A recent report written by eight psychologists and neuroscientists and published in Science magazine (and reported on in the New York Times) dismisses the idea that single sex schooling has any advantages, arguing that there is no ‘valid scientific evidence’ to back it. Apart from having no pedagogical benefits, it produces and reinforces gender stereotypes in both girls and boys. The authors also stress that there is no evidence that boys and girls learn differently.

Perhaps we should apply the same liberal instinct to education that many of us would have in relation to all other areas of life: that treating people differently because of their gender is wrong, even where we think it is for their benefit. Perhaps it is time to conclude that single sex education, like single sex employment, is not justifiable.

The economic impact of public investment in research

September 27, 2011

During my time as an Irish university president I got used to hearing commentators – often economists – arguing that the investment of public money in academic research did not represent good value. It was suggested regularly – and indeed this was done several times in comments on this blog – that there was no evidence that such investment produced any benefits to the state or the taxpayer.

It is therefore interesting that an independent analysis commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s higher education funding agency) has now quantified the benefits. It has found that the investment by the state in the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) of €1.173 billion has yielded some significant results. It has produced 43 spin-out companies and has commercially assisted 113 other companies. The commercial impact to date is estimated at €753 million. Over the next five years the commercial impact is estimated at €1.108 billion. If these figures are borne out, the net financial return on the investment  will be over €700 million. However, this does not factor in the impact on foreign direct investment or start-ups that have been prompted by the availability of high value expertise or the support of graduates from funded research programmes.

It is difficult to argue that significant public investment in research is bad value for money. The opposite is true, and it is to be hoped that during difficult economic times in particular the investment will continue.

This blog post may be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes

September 27, 2011

Yesterday I needed to get a simple piece of information from a utility company of which I am a customer. To get this I needed to call them, and so my first major problem was to find a telephone number. The company helpfully has a ‘Contact us’ section on their website, which gives all kind of information about them, except how to contact them by phone. Yes, there is an online form with which you can send them a message. Yes, there is a link to a page where they answer 25 possible questions you may want to ask them; but no sign of a telephone number. Eventually, after about 20 minutes of surfing, I found a phone number under the heading ‘corporate information’.

Well, I discovered that my telephone call is important to them. I know that because, when I stopped counting, I had heard a voice recording say this to me 24 times. But I am running ahead a little, so let me go back. I called the number, and as is now the custom, a voice welcomed me to their telephone enquiry empire, assured me what a valued person I am, and then asked me to choose between six different options by pressing a number on my telephone keypad, or pressing ‘star’ if I wanted to hear it all over again. Of the six options, four would lead me to recorded messages on various topics, one would let me use an automated payment system, and the sixth would allow me to ‘speak to one of our customer care representatives’. So I pressed ‘6’.

‘Your telephone call is important to us. So that we can help you more effectively, I would ask you to choose between the following four options’.  One of these, I discovered, was simply to return me to the previous six options; the second got me a recorded message that was of no relevance to me; the third was advertised as advice for customers, but as far as I could tell got me nothing more useful than some recorded music on a loop, interrupted every 30 seconds or so by the assurance that my call was important to them. I had stupidly neglected to find out what the fourth option was. Not knowing how to reverse out of option three, all that was left to me was to start again.

So, back to the journey through the options jungle, until I was able to focus on the final option 4, which actually promised me access to one of their famous customer care representatives. Of course, all their customer care representatives were engaged (probably they were all busy recording messages assuring customers how important their calls are), and I was thanked for my patience, and offered the traditional reassurance about my overriding importance to them. Then, after some considerable time, suddenly a different voice told me that my call could be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes. And after that, one of the actual representatives was on the line, taking a break from recording automated messages.

Honestly, is this really an efficient way of dealing with customers? Is it really cheaper and more effective? On another call to a company recently I was gently told by the representative that I had chosen the wrong option for my particular question, only to find that when I called again and chose the ‘correct’ option that I was speaking to exactly the same representative again. Is this all some convoluted game?

If companies really do need to organise calls so that they follow the appropriate channels, would it not make sense simply to offer different numbers for different issues, but without all the automated messages, obscure options, musical interludes and recorded assurances? Is it maybe time to stop annoying customers?

By the way, if you want to contact me in response to this post, please fill in the form on the top right of the screen, or call my lawyers whose name is mentioned in the 132nd post published here. Your calls may be recorded.

The age of innocence?

September 26, 2011

As students arrive in their various universities and prepare for a new academic year, spare a thought for freshers some of whom, apparently, hardly know how to get out of bed unaided. According to a survey carried out by supermarket group Sainsburys, some students don’t know how to boil an egg, have no idea how to clean a bath, have never operated a dishwasher themselves, are completely innocent of any knowledge of finance or banking, and cannot get a fix on how to pay a bill. In short, they lack pretty much any of the life skills needed in order to walk out of the front door without holding someone’s hand.

In my experience most students are rather more savvy than that, and are considerably less innocent of knowledge of everyday life. However, it is wise to remember that many students will find their first days at university to be a daunting experience, with less of the support and guidance at every step that they are used to. It is therefore important to tell them and then remind them that they need never be alone, and that in universities there is always someone to turn to for help. For some the transition to higher education can be lonely, and so an appropriately friendly word or gesture can make a difference. Most students will flourish in their new environment very quickly, but they may benefit from a little help at first. Be patient with them, and never treat a question as stupid.

The story of rude minor officials

September 25, 2011

We’ve probably all experienced this: an official, separated from us by a desk or indeed a glass partition, talks to us in rather patronizing and rude tones; or keeps us waiting after finishing with the last member of the public even though they can see – or maybe because they can see – that we are in a hurry. Then there is the official from whom we need something – say, an authorization – and who looks ever more likely to turn us down the more they see how important it is to us.

So, is that just a lot of unjustified stereotyping? Perhaps not. A study carried out by researchers from the University of Southern California, Northwestern University and Stanford University has revealed that persons with ‘high power and low status’ have a tendency to demean others. This is partly driven by the frustration of knowing that they do not themselves enjoy respect or admiration, and this prompts them to want to inconvenience or demean others. A solution, the researchers found, is for managers to assure and convince the people in question that their roles carry status and that they are respected.

I suspect this is also connected with the consequences of having a hierarchical society or organisation.

So there is little point being angry with the rude official. It is better to reinforce their sense of self-esteem.

Setting the stage

September 24, 2011

Recently I was a guest at another university overseas, and while there I was shown one of their new buildings. The key thing about this building is that while it had fixed outer walls that made up the rectangular box shape of the building, inside the box absolutely nothing was fixed. My hosts explained to me with some pride that between one semester and another they could completely change the internal configuration. So right then it had three floors, and there were two large lecture theaters and two smaller ones, and a number of offices and labs and an atrium, they said they could ‘easily’ change that to four floors, no theaters, a number of seminar rooms, and open plan offices. And then a few months later change it all back again, without having to bring in any builders.

It reminded me immediately of a theatre stage, on which the scene could be changed within a minute or two to meet the needs of the narrative.

So is the era of the permanent fixtures in higher education buildings over? Is the scene of pedagogy changing so regularly that we need to be able to re-model the stage regularly? Perhaps it is, and perhaps this is something we should welcome; or at least be open to.