Telling the university story

Universities are right at the heart of economic and social development and regeneration. In Ireland for example, most foreign direct investment attracted by the state and its agencies is now connected with high value university research. Regions of the country without a university proclaim that they cannot be developed successfully unless they get one. As the government tries to contain the ranks of the unemployed and to re-skill those looking for work, universities are seen as key. So why do we read stuff like this, as in last weekend’s Sunday Independent? Here are universities as seen by the paper’s Eamon Delaney:

‘In fact, our universities illustrate everything that is wrong with the Celtic Tiger. From being the envy of other countries, and a hothouse of entrepreneurial and intellectual talent, our third-level sector has bankrupted itself with high salaries, poor productivity and minimal periods of actual lecturing.’

Leaving aside for now the question of salaries, none of this is true, even remotely. And yet it is clear that it is a perspective shared by a good many people.  Universities have helped to mitigate some of the worst effects of the recession, and have been willing to take on more students for less money. ‘Productivity’ has increased dramatically.

So why is this not recognised? Why, in short, are universities so appallingly bad at making their own case and putting the record straight? Why are they so reluctant to gather and disseminate the information that would balance the picture? And indeed, why are universities so bad at demonstrating that they are willing to tackle under-performance and abuse of position in those very few cases where it occurs?

Universities are rightly keen to publicise their achievements and successes, but when it comes to explaining their performance more generally they prefer to stay below the radar. This won’t do any more. There are too many sceptics out there with half understood or plain wrong information. It is time for university communications departments to step out of the shadows and make a much more persuasive case.

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33 Comments on “Telling the university story”

  1. Fair enough, but the slide from “universities” to “university communications departments” isn’t a simple one. Where we should have communications, mostly we have branding and marketing, neither of which offer substantive ways of addressing the problem.

    It’s interesting, though, that wherever this sort of commentary pops up, something like “minimal periods of actual lecturing” is often considered to be the key symptom of higher education’s declining effort. There’s very little evidence that maximising periods of actual lecturing actually leads to anything very much at all, including actual lecture attendance.

    Perhaps the communications department could start with this one?

    • Paul Donovan Says:

      I’d say start with job titles. The ‘man in the street’ expects that if one is called a lecturer, then that’s what one does. Imagine a plumber who views fixing taps as being a low skill activity that gets in the way of what he really wants to do – hydrological research!

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I agree with Kate that communications departments are mostly preoccupied with branding and marketing, important functions as these might be they have not much to say when it comes to the type of *communication* we are discussing here (besides there is an unpleasant Orwellian undertone to ‘communications departments’ I personally dislike). Marketing and branding can only tell one side of universities’ story, the bulk of it is up to the university academic community itself, from university leaders to early career lecturers, to become living testimonies to the social benefits of higher education. The Gramscian concept of the ‘public intellectual’ needs to be revisited for the 21st century, we need to become ‘social intellectuals’, in the complex sense that the term social acquires in the context of an evolving media landscape, we need to become fluent in the language of contemporary digital communication, we need to be bold and reach out, we need to have the courage of our convictions and believe ourselves in the story we wish to tell, unfortunately most of us are too busy *just* lecturing to do all this…

  2. Vince Says:

    I want you/your position to try and get into any one of the universities as a grad. Dream up scenarios taking you from primary degrees at different grades 3rd, 2nd, (you’ll be fine with a 1st from any era). Or even get some information on same. Then you’ll see exactly why you have a nightmarish public profile. If someone like I, who has general good feelings -perhaps even romantic- towards your industry, consider ignorant spoilt unhelpful ( nay hindering) trolls to be remarkable accurate as a description of your gate keepers.

    Oh, wordpress is still on a mission to make it as difficult as they can to comment on any blog. The issue hinges on them owning the gravatar and W-P and us using one mail account to access all such. So you have one mail for two with two distinct usernames and two passwords. Nor will it be helpful into the future once the FB-WP situation hardens. Anywoowoos, if you untick the requirement for a valid mail to comment under the bonnet this solves the issue; for now anyway.
    From your side;
    Settings —-> Discussion—->Other comment settings——> untick [box] Comment author must fill out name and e-mail.

    From our side;
    A new clean mail a/c. Or an old a/c that hasn’t a connection to anything else

  3. Trust me. I’m a Doctor.

    Perhaps they don’t believe we are working hard because we won’t actually let them verify it.

    In addition, there are lots of public service workers working very hard, doing the wrong things.

  4. Another important question is why the Irish media are giving all Irish academics a hard time at present. I would oviously be reluctant to characterise the reporting as deliberately inaccurate, but it’s fair to say that many people who read the recent coverage of academics’ salaries will have formed inaccurate ideas about what is really happening, and I don’t sense much concern from the media about correcting those misunderstandings. The Irish Independent’s recent apology for being downright wrong about the Teaching Council is a case-in-point: they seem barely willing to acknowledge that they did anything wrong:

    The Eamon Delaney article is a good example of the problem. Early on in the piece, he writes:

    “How could such a “deal” be working, when some heads of universities are being paid salaries of up to €450,000 a year?”

    Later (by which time at least half of his readers will have moved on) he acknowledges that “Dr Michael Murphy, the UCC president — and the highest-paid president with an annual salary of €232,000 — has not taken a cut.”

    Obviously both of those statements can’t be true (and it’s the second which is the accurate one). So why is the mistake allowed to stand, and why was it made in the first place?

    You can call that what you will – probably the kindest thing one might say is that it represents very sloppy editing, which in turn prompts the question of why greater care is not being taken to present the facts about academics accurately. But it’s not a unique example.

    Another problem is the business of tarring us all with the same brush. The number of academics earning more than 200K per annum in Ireland is, as a percentage of the total academic workforce, absolutely tiny, representing considerably less than one per cent. The percentage of those earning more than 100K is also very small. Yet the Irish Times chooses to report these matters under a headline saying that Ruari Quinn is criticising “academics’ failure to take a pay cut” here: This is not inaccurate – not literally – but massively misleading all the same, since most readers will take that to mean that all academics are refusing a pay-cut.

    So while I agree that universities should make a better case for the value of what we do – and the real cost of pay at third level – it is up to the media to do their bit too. From where i’m reading a lot of the reporting feels vindictive. I’m sure most of the journalists involved would reject that assertion, but the very least we should expect from them is accuracy.

    • So, because journalists are inaccurate (surprise surprise), it means that there is nothing wrong with higher education?

      • Patty Gray Says:

        Of course not, Brian. But think about your logic: are you in turn implying that a good way to repair what is wrong with higher education is through reporting inaccurate information in the media, especially knowing that for many people in Ireland this is their main source of information about higher education?

        • Patty. I’m suggesting that this mis-reporting is taken more seriously than it should be because academics are not seen to address the weaknesses in the system. Is the media the main source of information? My own views were formed by the appalling teaching I suffered through in the seventies in a University that is now ranked around 130th in the world (no doubt it has improved a little). My impression of 2nd level teaching is not informed by the media but by the stories my kids bring home that suggest that about 25% of their teachers may be incompetent and there is nothing the principal can do about it. I would suggest that most people are forming their opinions about education on their own and their children’s experiences and it’s not that good.

          • anna notaro Says:

            So Brian your views are totally anecdotal, i.e. based on old personal experience (from the ’70s!) which you then connect to your kids more recent one, even detailed down to a precise percentage (25%). Moreover you dismiss the role of media asoopionion makers since that does not apply to yoursef..

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            sorry please ignore comment below the keyboard of my mobile phone just decided to go here is my comment to Brian’s point above: So Brian your views are totally anecdotal, i.e. based on old personal experience (from the ’70s!) which you then connect to your kids more recent one, even detailed down to a precise percentage (25%). Moreover you dismiss the role of media as opionion makers since that does not apply to yourself or your family experience. The faults with this type of reasoning are self-evident to me..

          • Anna. Yes, my views are anecdotal or could be described as observations. However, my observations indicate that there are significant problems that should be properly investigated. These are also the observations of many (if not most) parents. The unwillingness of teachers and lecturers to admit that these problems exist, much less allow investigation of these issues, reduces their credibility and increases the credibility of poor journalists. Now as a fan of the use of evidence and logic, I’d love if you could indicate the faults in this argument that you have identified so that I can correct my views.

  5. cormac Says:

    Great post. I have long wondered why FONTs (fancy office no teaching) do not address the media misrepresentation of academic life. Could it be that many in college management positions share the opinions of Paul Rooney instead of Ferdinand?

    • I was very interested in how my colleagues interpreted Paul Mooney’s piece:
      He was much harder on management that academics in higher education. He more or less said that there were good and bad lecturers but we had no way of telling the difference. However he suggested that management in higher education was generally bad. Everyone seems to have gotten rather excited by what he said about the lecturers (imagine suggesting that some of them were bad), but nobody had any sympathy for the managers.

  6. Steve Button Says:

    “It is time for university communications departments to step out of the shadows and make a much more persuasive case.”

    As regards communications abilities, the University sector could make a start much closer to home by learning how to communicate with their own staff more effectively and inclusively.

    • Another strategy might be to try to identify to what extent the journalists have a point and try to fix those issues.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Please. Apparently you didn’t notice that Eamon Delaney’s piece wasn’t made up of mere errors or even bullshit (in the technical sense). It was made up of lies and deliberate falsehoods that the author knows to be falsehoods (assuming he’s not a complete cretin).

        But we are obliged “to identify to what extent” the propagandist “has a point”? Why?

        • Why? Constantly disagreeing with those who say there is something wrong with higher education reduces our credibility. People will quite reasonably say “well you would say that wouldn’t you”. The original question was about why people are too ready to accept this criticism from journalists. I am suggesting that part of the reason is that we rarely accept that we do anything wrong and even when we do we do not allow any real investigation so that it can be improved.

      • Steve Button Says:

        Why not push the boat out and try to do both?

  7. Scotto Voce Says:

    “leaving aside, for now, the questions of salaries”…. a rather large omission! Demonstrating the public and social good of Universities needs to go beyond Uni communications departments, although it would be nice if there was occasional recognition that many of these operate well beyond brand and marketing. VCs and academics need to make the positive case for HE and not in purely utilitarian terms. In Scotland that might mean positively embracing and, therefore shaping the outcome agreement agenda. More academics could be engaging with social media. Agree with previous psot re rediscovering the Gramscian public/social inteelectual for the 21st century.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Scotto, I’m just curious about your pseudonym, is it inspired by Duns Scotus the philosopher? Also, makes me think of ‘sotto voce’ (said in a quiet voice), or simply ‘scotto’, overcooked in Italian 🙂

      • Scotto Voce Says:

        Anna, it’s ironic, since I say little quietly! just a, to me, amusing take on sotto voce with a wry nod to ‘voice of scotland’.. was my original twitter pseudonym when my then job prevented political comments. not secret any more. didnt know the overcooked reference, that’s probably apt too…

  8. Anna Notaro Says:

    @Brian, I am not sure I have enough data to agree that the problems you mention are ‘significant’ or that there is, as you put it, an ‘unwillingness of teachers and lecturers to admit that these problems exist’. In Ferdinand’s original post it is acknowledged that such problems exist and are addressed when he writes:

    ‘And indeed, why are universities so bad at demonstrating that they are willing to tackle under-performance and abuse of position in those very few cases where it occurs’.

    Finally, it seems to me that anecdotal observations do not qualify exactly as a stringent use of evidence and logic you say you are a fan of, unless such words for you carry a different meaning.

    • Anna, it seems that Ferdinand and Paul Mooney may disagree on this. Perhaps Ferdinand is talking about the UK where there is a higher level of accountability and quality assurance in higher education teaching than in the Republic of Ireland. There is definitely lots of anecdotal evidence of poor standards in teaching in Ireland and this normally suggests that further investigation is required. The fact that academics in Ireland have not accepted the level of quality assurance (eg independent evaluation of student surveys) that is accepted in the UK would lead the public to distrust them.

  9. Dan Says:

    Brian, are you joking? In my university our work is reviewed and audited constantly. In my time I have experienced extensive and intensive QAQI and QR reviews of my Dept. that take months of work, as well as annual and ongoing External Examiner reviews of undergraduate exams, taught masters theses and the detailed reports of PhD external examiners, on top of the ordinary undegraduate module evaluations every semester and subsequent module enhancement reporting, as well as periodic university audits and surveys of my research and teaching, and finally PMDS. I have no objection to it, although it takes a serious amount of time from my actual work, and surely impacts on my productivity, but to imply that we live and work in universities with no accountability is rather odd…

    • Vince Says:

      But why is this not your ‘actual work’.

    • Dan, we do a lot of measuring of inputs but very little measuring of outputs. I would agree with you if you were to suggest that this is largely a waste of time. Can I ask to what extent your student surveys are accessible by your boss and to what extent you are expected to change what you do based on these surveys?

      • Dan Says:

        Brian, my student evaluations are seen by my head of dept. and now by my faculty admin. we are expected to report briefly each year on how we enhance our courses in response to student surveys. I do that anyway, my own course evaluations tend to be very good, but it’s always the 2-3 critical comments from a class of 200 that make you think…perversely! consequently, no course of mine is ever the same as the previous years. But, in my opinion, it has to stop there. I would hope that my university could trust me to teach as well as I can, there comes a point when evaluations will destroy that trust. As to National Student Surveys as in UK, my sense is that these can lead to dysfunctional behaviour and practices. If a young lecturer with a family (not me!) needs good evaluations, then I could see how they would be tempted to give easy courses, grade highly and load up all lecture notes, etc, etc…?

        • I too have to show my student evaluations to my line managers. I also have to write a report for those managers, giving an overview of the comments and explaining what I’d do differently next year. In general I usually email the students with an overview of their comments and information about how I’ll respond – and that in turn encourages them to give better feedback in later years. This is fairly common throughout my institution.

          While I am frustrated by the fact that so much of my job involves filling in forms that are designed to prove that I’m working (which is frustrating because those forms prove very little at all and thus feel like a waste of time), I do think the processes for reviewing student feedback are fairly good. They could be better, but there is accountability there. So to respond to Brian’s earlier point, I think that whatever the experience is in your own institution, it can’t be generalised to stand for the entire sector.

          I would personally be very happy if there was more objective measurement of academics’ performance since this would refute the many lies and misconceptions about what we do. It would also stop our employers from engaging in exploitative practices – it is very much to their benefit that we don’t clock in and out: if I was “forced” to work 9-5, Monday to Friday, 48 weeks in the year, I’d be working about 70% less than I currently do for the same salary. Fine by me.

          But to go back to the original point, it is disappointing that sections of the Irish media are publishing articles about academics that present inaccurate information about us. I think the issues of accountability and the inaccurate reports are related, but I think we academics are too inclined to be self-flagellating. If we’re being lied about we should stand up for ourselves, regardless of how well or badly our managers are doing their jobs.

          • So how can we generalise about accountability in the higher education centre. Where I work, the requirements are quite light. Lecturers are required to carry out a student survey. The union does not allow this to be computerised. The head of department is not allowed to look at the raw returns. These are analysed by the lecturer who is trusted to write an accurate short report for the head of department. Not exactly a reliable quality assurance mechanism, but there’s worse. Many people do not carry out this activity and there is no real push to get people to do it. In addition if it were to be enforced and accurate reports returned, lecturers are free to ignore any pressure to improve their teaching.

            I’d be interested to know if, in the institutions where the agreed procedures are implemented, what mechanism is in place to ensure that all lecturers carry out the process and more importantly respond appropriately to problems that are identified.

  10. Dan Says:

    Vincent, a good point and poorly phrased by me. Yes, it is also ‘my actual work’, – the famous research, teaching and administration that we are expected to do – and I’m happy to do it. I just think that the tax-payer would get more benefit from me as a university lecturer, if I could devote even more of my time to teaching, improving my teaching, research, and improving my research. But that’s not my point. My point was about quality reviews and accountability. I think it’s not widely realised that Irish universities are constantly being appraised and by students, national bodies, funding authorities, and international reviewers at that.

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