Archive for September 2011

RGU announces fees for students from the rest of the UK

September 23, 2011

As readers of this blog will know, there are no university tuition fees in Scotland for Scottish and EU students. However, in the light of the new fees régime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and further in order to ensure that university places in Scotland are not placed under impossible pressure of demand from the rest of the UK, the Scottish government announced that universities can charge rest-of-UK students up to £9,000 p.a. from the academic year 2012-13.

Most Scottish universities have now announced their rest-of-UK fees, with a number of institutions opting for the £9,000 limit (though in the cases of Aberdeen University and Heriot Watt, these fees apply to three years only, with the final year free to those whose studies cover four years).

Today my own institution, Robert Gordon University, has made its rest-of-UK fees announcement, and we have decided to set fees in accordance with the actual cost of delivering the degrees. This means that we have set the fees in three bands, with fees ranging from £5,000 to £6,750, with one programme (Master of Pharmacy) having a fee of £8,500. Under this framework Scottish students do not subsidise students from the rest of the UK, and these in turn do not subsidise Scottish students; we regard this as a fair and transparent framework.

RGU will also announce a framework for scholarships, bursaries and student support for all students in due course.

Dismissing science

September 23, 2011

Today’s modern society is built upon science. It uses the discoveries of science to find solutions to problems in areas such as health, transport, product development, nutrition, and so forth. Its industry and hence its employment is clustered around science-driven innovation. So you would expect that respect for the potential of scientific discovery lies at the heart of political strategy? Well, yes and no. Many politicians do understand this, and large-scale funding for science (by bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland) reflects this.

But there are other voices in politics, and some of these are becoming influential. Many of them are in America. In fact, at least two leading candidates vying for the Republic nomination for President – Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann – hold views that are profoundly anti-science, calling key scientific theories into question and suggesting bad motives on the part of scientists. There are touches of something medieval here. If someone with such views were indeed to take over the US presidency, the results could be profound, and could easily lead to the United States becoming a backwater in geopolitical terms.

It is not, or at any rate should not be, the task of politicians to second guess science, or to declare its theses right or wrong based on ideology. That approach is total madness. No country can afford it, not even America.


September 23, 2011

What you see here is Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre, which opened in 1906 and is one of the largest theatres in these islands.

His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen

His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen

Funding Scottish higher education

September 22, 2011

The Scottish government yesterday published its draft Budget for the year 2012-13, and its spending plans in subsequent years. The principles underlying its higher education plans are summarised in the document as follows:

‘Maintain free access to higher education by ensuring that the opportunity to learn is based on ability to learn, not the ability to pay. We will invest significant sums in higher education over the period of this Spending Review. This settlement for universities, when taken together with our proposals on fees for students from the rest of the UK and the measures to improve efficiency across our institutions, will ensure that we maintain a university sector that is internationally competitive and truly excellent in world terms.’

In financial terms the funding for universities will increase in the coming year by 8.2 per cent, a significant allocation of resources during a period of general budgetary cutbacks. This indicates a determination on the part of the government to deliver on its promise to bridge any emerging funding gaps between Scotland and England and therefore ensure Scotland’s universities remain competitive. Achieving this without tuition fees or student contributions in Scotland may be difficult, but the government is showing a willingness to maintain a stable university sector that is welcome.

Academic formalities

September 22, 2011

Thirty-one years ago this month I embarked upon my career as an academic, becoming Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin. As I prepared to go into my very first lecture, an older colleague (from another department) suggested to me that it would not be proper for me to turn up at the lecture not wearing a gown.

I doubt there will be many people giving university lectures this academic year in Dublin or elsewhere wearing gowns. And yet, there is still something curiously formal and old-fashioned (in a pre-1960s sort of way) about academic life. I know several university departments in different institutions in which staff do not all call each other by first name, and certainly do not address the Head that way. And even where such barriers have been overcome, there can often still be something very hierarchical about interpersonal relations, even in the most politically radical departments (not that there are many of these now). It sometimes surprises me how status conscious academics can be.

I tend to think that a spirit of scholarship and inquiry does not prosper in an environment of formality. Therefore it may be useful occasionally to consider the atmosphere in universities and within the organisational units, to assess whether it is conducive to open debate and the exchange of ideas, without the restraint of interpersonal formality and the inclination to seek or offer deference.

Trust and confidence: the new TCD Provost’s inaugural address

September 21, 2011

It was sometimes said in the past that universities have to deal with the issues and problems of the modern world, but find very little to say about them in public. While university heads are often found lamenting the lack of resources for higher education, they say little about pedagogy, educational values or the benefits of scholarship and research. Over recent years this has begun to change – and maybe I am arrogant enough to say that, in Ireland, I made my own contribution to that. In any case, others have followed suit, including my successor in DCU. And now the new Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Paddy Prendergast, has delivered a highly interesting inaugural speech on his university and its place in the world.

The Provost did address the issue of lack of funds, pointing out that TCD’s global ranking, with far fewer resources than its international competitors, was by no means an inadequate achievement; but that it could be much better with a greater investment on a par with what is the norm in other countries.

But perhaps the more interesting comments in his speech reflect on the relationship between public trust and regulation. Here is what he said, in more detail:

‘Increased regulation is inversely proportional to trust. We are currently suffering a chronic lack of trust, and so the Pavlovian response is to demand more regulation. But we’ve got to get trust back into the system. Ireland cannot prosper without it. Nothing flourishes in a climate of fear and suspicion. Trust is linked to accountability. Institutions worthy of trust are happy to be held accountable for their decisions.’

The Provost is clearly right in identifying this as one of the key issues in higher education today. For reasons that many in the sector don’t understand or appreciate, there is a visible lack of trust and confidence in the wider community that university decision-making is prudent, reasonable and transparent. Based on anecdotal evidence (and often not much more), there is also a lack of confidence in the willingness of academics to devote sufficient attention to students.

Paddy Prendergast is right in seeing this as a critical problem that needs to be addressed. The temptation for governments and their agencies has been to respond to criticism of universities by imposing new regulatory constraints and limiting their freedom of action, in the apparent belief that universities will then behave more rationally and that their activities will provide better value for money. This is far from obviously the case, but in order to avoid this response from becoming more emphatic universities need to address the issue of public confidence and to persuade the public that they are meeting their responsibilities effectively. Good communication is an important first step, and in this context the Provost’s inaugural address was well judged. It should be part of a new landscape of transparency and advocacy in the cause of higher education.

An ‘Oxbridge obsession’?

September 20, 2011

The British university mission group Million+, which perhaps slightly awkwardly describes itself as a ‘think tank’, has issued a pamphlet in which it expresses its doubts about the British government’s higher education policy for England. The chief concern of the group relates to the policy of trying to secure the admission of some talented students from lower income groups into the higher ranking universities, which Million+ believes could compromise the capacity of its member institutions (which are all post-1992 universities) to have a rather greater impact in bringing disadvantaged students into higher education.

Anyway, what struck me in all of this was the call in the pamphlet for the government to ‘move beyond the Oxbridge obsession’. What the group means, presumably, is that governments and others spend too much time trying to secure access to Oxford and Cambridge and to fund these institutions excessively, neglecting the contribution made by other more modest institutions.

There may be a bit of special pleading in the pamphlet, but there are also some points worth making. On the one hand, if the ‘Oxbridge obsession’ is shorthand for a focus on excellence and a desire to ensure that a reasonable cross-section of the general population can  experience higher education as offered in the best endowed institutions, then there is at least something to be said for it. But if it expresses the view that the Oxbridge model of higher education is the only model that has the capacity to deliver world leading education, then we should pause to think. It is probably true that the Oxbridge model is similar to that adopted by some of the other heading universities of the world, such as Harvard and Princeton, but on the other hand it is quite different from that of other global leading institutions such as MIT and Caltech.

The risk in all of this is to the idea of higher education diversity. On this side of the Atlantic there is some acceptance in theory of diversity, but in practice the assumption appears to be that only one kind of university can strive to be world class (whatever that means). That is not good for the system, however. Diversity of mission is important for all sorts of reasons and should be encouraged, not as a way of identifying a hierarchy of excellence, but as a way of meeting different social, cultural and economic needs. But within that setting universities should still strive to be excellent and to produce outcomes in teaching and research that can challenge the best in the world. That should ultimately be the goal of all universities.

Choosing a president

September 19, 2011

Readers outside Ireland may not be particularly aware that an Irish presidential election campaign is under way; on the other hand, hardly anyone in the world will be unaware of the US presidential election to be held next year.

Let’s stick with Ireland for a moment. The country’s formerly dominant (but now devastated) party Fianna Fail is currently affected by internal convulsions, caused by the desire of one Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú to be a candidate for the post. I hope it will not sound disrespectful to him if I say that, outside the traditional music community, he is not a household name.

A growing consensus is that none of the candidates who are in the ring, with the exception of Senator David Norris (whose nomination is not secure), would excite the general population. This is causing people to wonder whether the post is actually a necessary one for the country at all; which is a shame, given the equally widespread consensus that the present incumbent, Mary McAleese, has performed her tasks with great distinction. One reason for the disaffection may be related to the nomination process, designed to give the political parties a gatekeeper role.

The gatekeeper function belongs even more emphatically to the two major political parties in the United States, but in a much more complex process. Each party’s committed voters determine the choice of the candidate, and because this is so the candidates have to appeal to the core supporters, which in the case of the Republicans in particular means that an ambitious candidate needs to place him or herself on the right wing; before shifting rapidly to the centre when it comes to the actual election.

It seems to me that the credibility and acceptability of a presidency depends on the credibility and acceptability of the electoral process. A key element in this is how candidates emerge and are chosen. Right now this is not ideal in either Ireland or the United States. This is an aspect of democracy that needs urgent attention. The paradox is that a good process must ensure that candidates who stimulate thenpublic interest are able to secure a nomination, while those whose credentials are less obvious, like the good Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, are not necessarily hurried into the ring. It’s not an easy process.

The usefulness of the academic CV

September 19, 2011

Over the past decade I have seen and have had to consider hundreds of CVs submitted for one reason or another by academic faculty. The curriculum vitae is still the standard document in which an academic sets out her or his achievements, but over the years these documents have tended to grow longer and longer. As certain types of activity in teaching, research and administration have become more important in considering promotion, the typical CV has devoted more and more space to setting out the relevant details. This also includes as a matter of course a full list of the individual’s publications and conference presentations. It is not unusual nowadays for a CV to stretch over 30 or more pages.

The extent of this was made clear to me recently when I was assisting a voluntary organisation in making an appointment to a senior post. One of the five shortlisted candidates was a university lecturer. The four others presented applications with supporting documentation of between two and four pages; the lecturer’s application and CV covered 36 pages. My fellow interviewers, none of whom had an academic background, were completely baffled by his materials and concluded, before I intervened, that he was completely unable to marshall his thoughts and that he would be out of his depth outside the university. I explained to them that this kind of presentation was simply what was normally required of him and that this should not be held against him. They were very sceptical about the whole approach.

So I began to wonder whether academic CVs are still useful even in the university. A recent report from Canada disclosed that a senior researcher there was padding his CV with details of publications that simply did not exist, and I suspect that at least in certain contexts, if the list of publications was long enough or if those considering the CV were not from that particular academic area, this would not be uncovered. Of course only a tiny number of academics would deliberately do this, but it is worth asking whether the avalanche of details makes it easy to assess even an honest CV, or whether it tempts those making a judgement to assume that volume indicates excellence without attempting a really detailed analysis.

Perhaps we should ask academics to submit CVs of two pages only; and that might usefully concentrate the mind.

Should universities have ‘reading weeks’?

September 18, 2011

Shortly after the beginning of my career as a university lecturer my department first introduced the concept of a ‘reading week’ – a week around half way through the term when teaching would stop an d student were encouraged to reflect on and read back over the materials of the course experienced so far. I think that may, perhaps most, students used this week as intended, but some clearly did not; I discovered this when the parents of one of my students sought my permission for this student to ‘extend reading week by four days’ because that is how long their skiing trip would take.

Reading weeks have been a feature of all the universities I have worked in since then. But are they doomed? At a recent conference I attended some colleagues from other universities told me that their institutions had abandoned reading weeks. In some cases this was because doubts had set in as to whether these weeks were being used properly, and in others it was because they made the teaching terms too long, thus creating problems for the organisation of the academic working year. Indeed this is not entirely new: an article in the journal Times Higher Education in 2000 had already reported that reading weeks were coming under pressure.

Does this matter? Was the ‘reading week’ a mistake in any case? Or is there some pedagogical value in letting students reflect a little during the middle of the semester? Does the reading week need to be saved, or should it be allowed to die peacefully?