Archive for March 2012

Teaching across boundaries

March 26, 2012

Here’s an unusual perspective. A professor at the University of Derby has suggested that ‘flirting’ is a normal and appropriate teaching technique. His suggestion was prompted by an email complaint he received, which stated that it was ‘outrageous the way you flirt in class’. But the professor, writing in the UK Huffington Post, thought that in fact flirting was a ‘powerful way of engaging students in learning’, and an ‘intellectual “come on”‘. Indeed he concluded that the complaining email was perhaps motivated by the writer’s irritation at not having been the subject of the professor’s flirting.

Of course it all depends on what we mean by ‘flirting’. A standard definition is to ‘behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone’. Of course this can be innocent, and I don’t doubt that the professor in question had no improper intent. But the relationship of teacher and student, even in higher education, is not one of equals, or one between people with an equivalent ability to manage boundaries between what is and what is not appropriate. Of course the teacher should engage the interest of the student, and using skills of personal engagement is part of that. But that is not flirting.

I am sure that the professor was not stepping beyond the acceptable boundaries. But his response does not suggest that these boundaries are as clearly understood as perhaps they should be.


Keeping the city alive

March 26, 2012

As most readers of this blog know, I am now a resident of Aberdeen in Scotland. I have been here now for just over a year, and have grown to like the city and the region a lot. Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe; the oil and gas industry have protected it from the recession, and it is prosperous and thriving. It is also an interesting place, with almost all buildings made of granite, which creates an unusual effect.

At the heart of the city, as I have mentioned previously, is Union Street. This is, as the name suggests, a street, but it is much more than that. First, it is very long, approximately one mile. Secondly, it is really a viaduct, because it runs across hills and is built on granite supports over the valleys – though this is not visible to the casual driver or pedestrian. It was completed early in the 19th century, and named in honour of the Act of Union with Ireland. It became the main shopping thoroughfare, with elegant shops and department stores.

From the later 20th century, however, Union Street was gradually destroyed. The construction of a number of major shopping centres sucked commercial enterprises out of the street, and the buildings they left empty either remained so, or were filled with discount shops or a narrow range of retail outlets, typically mobile phone shops. Here is a view not untypical of the street.

An equally typical view is as below, with closed buildings that look neglected.

If you look closely at the pavement in the photo above, you will also notice the remains of the chewing gum that people spit out – though in fairness, that’s a feature of most cities apart from Singapore.

Even those shops still in business seem to be infected by the general lack of respect for their environment, as seen below.

And even where some grand buildings survive and indeed thrive, as in the case of the Music Hall below, you may find that right next to them is some neglected building or a monstrosity that should never have been built.

So what’s to be done? Is Aberdeen’s Union Street doomed? One can only hope that it is not. It is the heart of the city, and right now it is a disgrace. But steps could be taken that will improve it and secure its future. It needs to be pedestrianised, or at any rate some of the traffic needs to be taken out; it needs plants and trees; it needs more attractive street lighting; and it needs active management of the properties and their use.

Over the next years Aberdeen’s city centre will be the subject of significant attention as the City Garden project gets under way (which, while controversial, was supported by a majority of the city’s residents in a recent referendum; but I won’t get into that here). I can only hope that this will also prompt the city to do something serious about Union Street. The time to do it is now.

Fantasy football

March 26, 2012

Every so often readers of this blog have to put up with posts about Newcastle United FC. More often than not these have been tales of woe, with accounts of mismanagement and uncertainty of direction, skulduggery and delusion. Not today. Against all the odds, for the past year Newcastle’s owner has served up a banquet for the fans in the form of extraordinarily skilful management (in the form of the unexpectedly brilliant Alan Pardew) and sheer genius in sourcing new players. The result: the club sits at number 6 in the Premier League, equal on points with Chelsea, but after spending only a fraction of the money that has sustained (or not sustained) the latter. And they are just five points below out-of-form Tottenham Hotspurs, with eight games to go.

If Newcastle can win enough of these games to get above Chelsea and overtake Spurs, then it’s the Champions League. Oh well, you can dream.

In this blog I have been very critical of owner Mike Ashley in the past, and would still maintain that he needs to become better (or even just very slightly good) at communicating with fans. But it may well be that, contrary to what I had thought, his recipe for running a premiership club is right after all. Less of the silly spending, more strategy and tactics. And to be honest, it’s a more interesting approach.

Irish higher education and the Soldiers of Destiny

March 23, 2012

In the light and aftermath of the Mahon Tribunal of Inquiry Report (the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments), it will probably be some time if ever before Fianna Fail, the party that for so long dominated Irish politics, will be able to play a leading role in Ireland again. Tainted by the strong whiff of corruption as a result of the Tribunal report, it was already  being blamed for economic mismanagement over its final period in office.

For all that, it seems to me to be worth pointing out that its role in developing higher education over the past two decades has been significant. It initiated the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI – admittedly at the instigation of and with the support of funds from Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney), it established Science Foundation Ireland (which became a game changer for high value foreign direct investment and for internationally competitive science research), it modernised the university system through granting university status to Dublin City University and the University of Limerick, and it brought about a significant expansion of student numbers, thereby broadening access to higher education.

Right now Fianna Fail’s destiny may well be oblivion, and I cannot easily see them taking power again in my lifetime. But when its history is written, the story will not be all bad. Not all bad.

The decline of globalisation in higher education?

March 20, 2012

The most recent statistics released by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority (Higher Education: Key Facts and Figures 2010-11) contain some interesting information. One of the things we learn is that international student recruitment by Irish universities and colleges has stalled and may be in decline.  During the past academic year the numbers went down for all the key countries and regions, with the sole exception of recruitment from other EU countries. In so far as international student recruitment supports the finances of the sector, recruitment from EU countries does not make a contribution as the students do not pay tuition fees.

Overall, international students account for a mere 7 per cent of the Irish student body. This compares with 17 per cent in the United Kingdom, though some evidence suggests that new visa rules in the UK may also be about to have a negative effect on numbers there. In the UK this may to some extent be compensated for by a continuing strong rise in students studying for a British degree in their own countries.

But what of Ireland? The  percentage of international students is already too low. It is not just that international students bring money, they also create a more cosmopolitan and diverse student body and enhance the experience for home students. It would be wholly negative if the trend towards a more international kind of higher education were to be reversed. There is work to be done.

Education all the way to the bank

March 20, 2012

Today I want to tell you about millionaires. More specifically, let us have a look at British millionaires, or rather, 436 of these. My interest in them was sparked by a recent survey conducted by investment advisers Skandia, the Millionaire Monitor+. This tells you all sorts of things about the people with lots of money, including something about their education. In fact, the Monitor+ gives us a whole new league table: the rankings for universities with millionaire graduates. Seriously.

So who is top of these very expensive pops? Actually, it’s the University of London – though that’s not really fair, because the University of London contains a number of autonomous ‘elite’ institutions which are all banded together in this table.  Second and third are Oxford and Cambridge. So far, so predictable. In fact, one newspaper report on this particular league table suggested that the list is dominated by Russell Group universities. That’s not really true, because alongside Oxbridge, and indeed Scotland’s St Andrews and Edinburgh, we also find Aston University (at number 10), the Open University (number 12), the new (post-1992) universities of Portsmouth and Brighton (at 15 and 16), and indeed Greenwich university (number 20). A few Russell Groupers don’t make an appearance at all.

And here’s another thing. A significant proportion of these higher educated millionaires went to private schools. Indeed, St Andrews scores highest on this aspect: a majority of its super rich graduates got to St Andrews via private education.

Does all this actually tell us anything at all? Or is it just that even the maddest criteria can serve for a league table? I would want to be careful with my conclusions, but it may be possible to argue that, on the one hand, inherited wealth seeks out universities with a reputation for receiving the social elite; but that when it comes to educating the successful entrepreneurs of tomorrow, these come from a much more diverse set of institutions. Once you exclude millionaires who had a private school education, Brighton University performs more or less as well as St Andrews in the millionaire graduate stakes. So if you don’t have lots of money but do have lots of ambition, most universities can help you equally well.

The elitism of a new mission?

March 13, 2012

So what should we make of this? Four English universities that had until now been members of the ‘1994 Group’ – which according to its website exists ‘to promote excellence in research and teaching. To enhance student and staff experience within our universities and to set the agenda for higher education’ (grammar and punctuation as on their website) – have moved their membership to the so-called ‘Russell Group’, which says it ‘represents 20 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector’; except that it doesn’t, as it’s now 24 universities. If you need to know (and really, you don’t), the four are the universities of York, Durham, Exeter and Queen Mary (the name of a college of the University of London).

The Russell Group and the 1994 Group are both examples of what are usually described as ‘mission groups’. Therefore, they exist in order to bring together institutions sharing a particular and unique mission. But if this is all about mission, then the four institutions concerned are moving from a group with one particular mission to another with, you know, exactly the same mission, as far as the rest of us can make out. The Russell Group, having invited the transfer group, are really happy, while the 1994 people are bemused. And if this particular transaction creates the impression that 1994 Group membership is a waiting list for the Russell Group, then the 1994ers are in trouble.

Presumably what we are learning here is that the ‘mission’ groups in England are all about status, rather than about strategy or mission. Their role is to identify who are members of the elite, or at least of a group self-identifying as an elite. They do have some Scottish members, though thankfully this membership does not appear to matter much in practice north of the Border.

Of course in some ways all higher education institutions are about nurturing an elite – in this case an elite of thought, analysis, scholarship and learning. Education is about bringing out the best in people and ideas, for the benefit of society. Nor is there anything wrong with universities wanting to be the very best; intellectual competition is often good. But what we are getting is the culture of the club: the idea that your associations need to smell of exclusivity. And however much this is presented as intellectual excellence, it is going to be affected by thoughts of social elitism, even if that was never intended.

Of course universities need to collaborate and to find like-minded partners. But in the end, that is a different game. Finding a club, enticing though it may seem at times, is an ambition that will always place the ultimate mission of academic excellence in its real essence at risk. It should be pursued with a great deal of reluctance.

How exactly should universities view their students?

March 6, 2012

Next to the main reception desk of a university I visited a year or two ago is a large painting of a classical scene, in which a white robed teacher is addressing a group of young men. The teacher is standing, then young men are sitting around in a semi-circle. The teacher is talking and gesticulating, while the students sit quietly. A few of them are looking at the teacher with close attention, but at least one is distracted and looking somewhere else, while one is visibly asleep. But overall the image is one of teacher and disciples, of wisdom reaching out to young minds anxious to learn. There is something patriarchal about the teacher and his relationship with his students.

How would we present this picture today? What do we think is the relationship between our academics and our students? What does ‘learning’ mean in this current world, and what does it mean to be a ‘teacher’? Indeed, are lecturers and professors ‘teachers’ at all in the sense suggested by that classical scene? What concept of the relationship do we have in today’s world of ‘learning outcomes’?

The problem is that we probably don’t have a clear concept at all. The good things in today’s academic world include the much greater emancipation of students and the acceptance of participation in the learner journey. But alongside this there is the much greater intrusion of bureaucracy, and uncertainty as to how the students’ participation should be managed and directed.

One way of looking at it would be to say that the student’s relationship with her or his university is a contractual one, as some universities now do. In this relationship students accept a balance of rights and responsibilities in a legally defined relationship. Another would be to say that traditional models of managing higher education should give way to one in which students share, at least to some extent, the process of setting the institutional strategic direction and its implementation.

The legal conceptualisation of higher education is becoming more visible in the rising number of complaints in some countries, either to independent adjudicators or in the courts.

It seems to me that we have spent too much time on funding and organisation development, and not enough on clarifying the nature of the learner journey through the higher education system, and the relationship between students and their teachers. We have been driven to prioritising structure over pedagogy. It’s time to redress the balance.