Archive for October 2011


October 27, 2011

This blog is now nearly three and a half years old, and has attracted over a million hits. During that time I have published 1,802 posts, and readers have made 12,580 comments on these posts. Something new has been published here pretty much every day since June 2008.

It may be time for a change of pace, or else I shall have published every thought in my head, however vacuous. I have therefore decided that, for now, I shall only publish a post once a week, on Tuesday mornings. If something startling happens on other days about which I feel moved to comment, then there may be additional posts on those days. I may also from time to time publish links to news items or comments elsewhere that may be of interest to readers. So keep looking in…

This space does in any case remain open to all, and if any reader would like to share (non-libellous) pieces here, then I shall be happy to publish them, on any day of the week.

Many thanks to all of you for your attention, which I genuinely appreciate and value.


Promoting the extra-curricular experience

October 25, 2011

The typical university student of previous generations no longer exists. Today students are not all recent school-leavers embarking on three or four years of full-time study before setting out on a career of permanent employment. There are still some of those, but others are part-time students, or mature students coming out of employment, or distance learning students who never get to see a campus.

The idea that universities can adapt to learner needs is a welcome one, but sometimes it carries a price. One of these is that many students now find it much more difficult to take part in what would once have been considered an essential ingredient of the higher education experience: clubs and societies, sports, volunteering, socialising. These activities can be an important part of personal development and learning, and moreover they give life to a campus.

In order to avoid universities losing the idea of the campus community, they should consider incentivising extracurricular activities. The most obvious way of doing this is to attach formal credit to such activities, thereby allowing students to use them to qualify for their degree. This was done by my former university, DCU. In Canada it has now also been suggested by a professor of higher education. It is time for others to consider such a move also. Only then can we preserve some of the values and benefits of a full university education.

An unexpected Newcastle United FC story: a good one

October 25, 2011

From time to time, as readers of this blog know, I comment on the affairs of Newcastle United football club. Mostly these are comments of despair and disbelief, as the club has for years now had a habit of taking mad decisions, firing good managers and appointing not-so-obviously-good ones, selling players the club needs to prosper, and generally behaving in an insane way while the long suffering fans look on.

But what’s this? Newcastle United have been in the top 4 of the English Premier League for weeks. The club’s players are behaving in a disciplined manner. They are unbeaten so far this season, an achievement only one other club can claim, Manchester City. They are set to break even financially. Their game is (usually) attractive and entertaining. The manager, Alan Pardew, is showing real skill in dealing with both players and fans. People are daring to whisper about playing in Europe.

This isn’t the Newcastle United we know. But we could come to love it.

Does anyone other than Harvard still need a Chemistry professor?

October 25, 2011

The answer to the question is yes, by the way. But it is a question that is now being asked (and for chemistry you can substitute various other disciplines).

But where does this question come from? Well, at a recent conference on the future of higher education in Madrid, a New York university president, David van Zandt, made the following comment.

‘I apologize to anyone here from Nebraska, but there is no reason to teach introductory chemistry in Nebraska in a classroom with 500 students. Not when you can pump in, say, someone from Harvard to give a video lecture to much smaller groups.’

He is not the first to have suggested something like this. The general thinking goes along these lines. In the age of instant internet connectivity, there is no need to have people in all corners of the world teaching their own versions of the basic academic subjects. Why not stream in lectures and tutorials from leading professors in a small number of key academic hubs? Then the local institution can add its own bit of intellectual property by following the Harvard professor’s lectures with their own more specialist courses. Students would still come to lecture theatres, perhaps, so that they can take part in the social and networking aspects of doing a degree, but their teachers will often be from somewhere else entirely – teachers they will see but probably never meet. So in Nebraska – or Scotland, or Ireland – we might end up with a much smaller number of senior academics providing original teaching, and a lot of teaching and research assistants doing the on-location back-up for the distant professor.

That’s all very well, in theory at any rate, if you believe universities are teaching centres for local students. But if you believe universities also have other fundamental responsibilities in supporting local and regional development – economic, cultural and social – and that they are the foundation for high value investment, then this model makes much less sense.

But it is clear that questions such as this will continue to be asked, and that universities need to develop a robust strategic model for development if they are to prosper in this kind of environment. I cannot answer for Nebraska (though maybe I’ll try to make a connection), but Scotland certainly needs to develop its own local intellectual property at this stage, as does Ireland. The chemistry professor will need to be in situ.

Recession photograph

October 24, 2011

The photo below was taken on a recent visit to America, but it probably could have been taken in a number of countries, in any city near you.


Academic discourse: robust argument, or personal unkindness?

October 24, 2011

Last week a friend, who works in another university, wrote me an email telling me about the stress she is experiencing as a result of the behaviour of an academic colleague, who has been haranguing her (and others) at committee meetings. It is not an entirely rare experience in universities, alas.

In a previous job, I had a colleague who was very keen on presenting himself as a ‘take-me-as-you-find-me’ character who never failed to be forthright in his opinions and who liked to say that everyone deserved to hear the ‘honest truth’ from him. Let us call him John. John’s view of the world was not a rosy one. The world was a bad place, and people were bad, and times were hard. This man’s glass was not so much half empty as entirely drained of even the last drop of liquid. And nobody who came into contact with him was spared a full account of his boundless and energetic pessimism. Nor were they spared his views of their faults and weaknesses, which he believed he had a duty to point out.

John was also fond of saying that academic discussions needed to be ‘robust’, though I rather came to the conclusion that what he meant was that he needed to be gratuitously rude and discourteous when engaging in debate. His rationale was that academic arguments needed to be tested, and that this required the counter-argument to be expressed as sharply as possible to see if the original point could withstand the heat.

Anyway, one day John appeared in my office and began with: ‘Can I be frank?’

I replied, ‘Of course, Frank, absolutely. And by what surname would you like to be known?’

John (now Frank) stood there for a moment, uncharacteristically indecisive. He was perhaps weighing up whether I had been trying to be witty or just unpleasant. He left the room without saying anything else, so I think unpleasant won out. But he never burdened me again with his frank views.

There is, I think, a particular streak in some university circles that makes people feel there is something honourable or even noble in ‘speaking the truth’ in circumstances where ‘the truth’ is largely designed to hurt or offend. I am neither suggesting that this is widespread nor arguing that deception or dishonesty is better, but I do sometimes wonder at the apparent indifference we see in some people as to the effect they have on others. The view that intellectual integrity somehow justifies or even requires points to be made in an unkind way is not really anything better than an excuse for bullying.

I should emphasise that I am not saying that all academic discourse is personally mean; in fact, I am grateful for a spirit of community and solidarity which mostly characterizes the places where I have worked. But it is worth saying that there is nothing intellectually or personally weak in showing concern and kindness, even (and maybe especially) where we disagree; and maybe it would be good every now and again to remind ourselves of that, and to behave accordingly. No matter how intellectually powerful you think your argument may be, there is no need to express it in a personally rude manner. Ever.

Revolution day

October 23, 2011

This day – October 23 – has been declared by the new Libyan government to be ‘liberation day’, the day on which the uprising against the now deceased dictator was completed. Although this is probably not much on the minds of Libya’s National Transitional Council, October 23 is a date with all sorts of revolutionary associations, with exactly the kind of mixed results and messages that one might expect. It is the date (at least according to some calculations) on which Russia’s October Revolution began that quickly brought the Bolsheviks into power. Ironically it is also the day on which, in 1956, Hungarians began an uprising against the Soviet occupiers, a revolution that was crushed a couple of weeks later on November 4. However, Hungary actually announced its new post-communist Republic on this day in 1989.

Purely statistically, most revolutions in history were quickly followed by dictatorships or tyrannies. What might however give the Libyans hope is that this longer historical trend may not apply in quite the same way today. The revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989 have on the whole produced working democracies, and while the jury is still out on the impact of this year’s ‘Arab Spring’, it may well be leading to much greater freedom in the region. While the bloody events of the last few days might give a little cause for concern, it is possible that the relationship between revolution and terror is being broken. Certainly Libya deserves a chance to succeed.

Education, or skills, or what?

October 22, 2011

An interesting public argument has been taking place in the United States, one that should have resonances elsewhere also. It was prompted by a statement from the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott. The Governor has been cutting the state’s budget, and in doing so has mused on what he would and would not like to be funding in higher education. One thing he doesn’t want to fund is programmes in anthropology. And why?  Because he doesn’t think there is employment for people who have taken a degree in anthropology. These are the Governor’s further thoughts in the matter:

‘Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so… It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here.’

And what does he want to fund, sort of? ‘Science, technology, engineering, and math degrees’, so that ‘when our kids get out of school, they can get a job’.

Comments such as this are part of the debate that has been taking place on the nature and purpose of higher education, and on the extent to which university degree programmes should reflect vocational and professional objectives. One of the most interesting university presidents in America, Michael Crow of Arizona State University, has responded to Governor Scott’s musings:

‘The notion that we must strip away academic programs not seemingly relevant to workforce development reflects a simplistic and retrograde view of the role of higher education in the American economy.

The governor is correct in one regard: The imperative to advance STEM education cannot be overstated. Given the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation to our national competitiveness, we should focus on increasing the quantitative, scientific, and technological literacy of all of our students. But resolving the complex challenges that confront our nation and the world requires more than expertise in science and technology. We must also educate individuals capable of meaningful civic participation, creative expression, and communicating insights across borders. The potential for graduates in any field to achieve professional success and to contribute significantly to our economy depends on an education that entails more than calculus.’

Governor Scott clearly has no idea what university education is for, and Michael Crow’s riposte is most valuable and absolutely right. Still, very often the discussion about vocationalism in higher education is not very enlightening. The classic university disciplines are still vitally important. But on the other hand, those who believe that programmes connected with professions or employments are not appropriate in a university will really need to roll back most of what happened to universities since the mid-19th century. Subjects such as engineering, law, accountancy, architecture – not to mention social work, medicine and so forth – are all vocational, and indeed the content of university programmes in these subjects is largely determined by professional bodies.

Students overwhelmingly go to university so that they may be better equipped to enter the labour market. Universities need to recognise that, but also ensure that they are equipped to be creative, critical, analytical and culturally aware (even in Florida). There is room for a great diversity of programmes, but all of them should adopt intellectual ambition and integrity. That is the common thread; the exact subject-matter of university programmes is not.

University managerialism: another narrative

October 21, 2011

One of the most common critiques these days of university life as presented by academics is that of ‘managerialism’. As far back as 2001 an article in Times Higher Education described it as follows:

‘”New managerialism” usually refers to practices commonplace in the private sector, particularly the imposition of a powerful management body that overrides professional skills and knowledge. It keeps discipline under tight control and is driven by efficiency, external accountability and monitoring, and an emphasis on standards.’

A frequent complaint amongst academics is that a new managerial class has taken control of the levers of decision-making in universities and is introducing private sector methods that disregard academic traditions and collegiality and which prioritise financial outturns over intellectual excellence and integrity. In addition this class of managers is said too have bureaucratised academic life, while avoiding accountability for these actions.

There can be little doubt that universities are today more bureaucratic places than they once were, and that a process of ‘management’ has emerged that would have seemed alien not so long ago. Rosemary Deem, who first produced an academic analysis of the phenomenon, wrote in 1998:

‘Until quite recently, the notion that the activities and cultures of universities either required managing or were, in any meaningful sense, ‘managed’, would have been regarded as heretical. Universities were perceived as communities of scholars researching and teaching together in collegial ways; those running universities were regarded as academic leaders rather than as managers or chief executives. However, as the higher education sector in the United Kingdom has grown in extent, it is also increasingly being required to justify the expenditure of public funds and to demonstrate ‘value for money’. Those who run universities are expected to ensure that such value is provided and their role as academic leaders is being subsumed by a greater concern with the overt management of sites, finance, staff, students, teaching and research.’

While the charge of managerialism may have some truth in it, the suggestion (if it were made) that this is the doing of a new managerial class intent on subverting the original academic mission is not really fair. Management systems in universities are not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a much wider movement that has included quality assurance systems, research assessment and greater financial accountability of universities. Some of these developments were entirely desirable, or at least can be justified easily enough. The problem is that they have taken what was or should have been the academic mission of finding and disseminating knowledge – i.e. content – and downgraded it, now taking second place to process. It is all to do with the desire to inject more accountability into higher education, a move made difficult by the fact that what higher education does intellectually is not easily measured. So other things were found that were capable of measurement, and in this way the system bureaucratised. And then of course the bureaucracy had to be managed.

Resolving all this is not at all easy. It is not possible, realistically, to roll back the last decade or two, and to be fair it probably isn’t desirable either. Universities back then were on the whole educators of the elite, with little inclination to justify what they were doing to anyone else. That’s no longer acceptable in today’s society. But rather than come up with ways of explaining and accounting for its actions and practices, the academy let external stakeholders lay down the rules, and this turned into what we have now got.

Not all of it is bad. Universities are much more cost effective than they used to be, have more professional support services, provide more serious back-up for students, manage their facilities more efficiently, engage more purposefully with the community. Where it is not so good is in the bureaucratisation of scholarship, and the inadequacy of inclusive decision-making. This is what we now need to get right. So to those academics who seem intent on suggesting that it’s all the fault of a managerial class, I would argue that the time is right to work with university leaderships to see how the academy can make its case effectively to a general public that wants more accountability, while preserving the best of the academic tradition. It shouldn’t be beyond us to achieve this.

Do university computer workstations still work?

October 20, 2011

Nearly ten years ago, when I was the fairly new President of Dublin City University, we opened the new O’Reilly Library in the university – a state of the art building designed to offer the right environment and facilities for today’s students. One key feature of the library was the availability of large numbers of computer workstations, on which users could consult online and digital materials. These were a popular feature of the library with students.

A few weeks ago I visited another university and was shown its library. It was also a very modern library, opened a year or two ago, and it also had a good deal of space set aside for computer workstations. But what struck me on this visit was that, despite the fact that it was close to exam time, the workstations were almost entirely unused. Other parts of the library were quite full, but here I noticed that many students were sitting at desks with their own laptops, netbooks or iPads. I asked one of the library staff, and she explained that over the past year or so they had experienced a dramatic decline in demand for the workstations. ‘If we were fitting out the building now’, she suggested, ‘we probably wouldn’t include many workstations, perhaps even none at all.’

As computers become smaller, and at least somewhat more affordable, it seems that student habits have been changing fast. Rather than looking for a university infrastructure to give them access to online materials and the internet, students are increasingly using their own hardware.

In fact, the provision of IT services in universities, even in the best ones, is often behind the times. I remember when Microsoft introduced Windows 95, which changed the nature of personal computing significantly (or rather, it brought it into line with Apple’s much earlier progress), many universities did not adopt it until perhaps three or four years later. I constantly see university workstations now operating on Windows xp, which really is so last decade. The reason for this is that universities usually prefer not to be early adopters, because often this would mean dealing with significant bugs and fixes that cost money and take up time. The risk is however that this will influence universities to make hardware and infrastructure decisions based on older technology which will involve early obsolescence.

Probably universities need to move away from a focus on hardware and instead see themselves as offering support and content for hardware owned by staff and students, as some are starting to do. This could possibly go hand in hand with the gradual phasing out of all printing services; but that’s perhaps another topic.