Archive for June 2012

No news is good news

June 25, 2012

I have previously in this blog suggested that, on the whole, universities do not understand what use to make of their websites. Most of these are poorly designed, are excessively busy, confuse the visitor with complex navigation, and contain information unlikely to be of even passing interest to the average reader. The latter category most particularly includes so-called ‘news’ items.

It is evidently believed in many universities that the latest achievements of faculty and forthcoming events are hugely exciting and eagerly awaited by all.  Often they dominate the university’s home page, not least because they are frequently accompanied by excessively large photographs, as in this case. Some universities give so much space to news, announcements and events that almost no room is left for the real links that most visitors are likely to want.

So here is a message for those who determine the content of university websites: though this may be hard to accept, in reality nobody is interested in your news. I suspect that often these items are published as a form of recognition for those colleagues mentioned in them, but that is a misguided use of valuable online real estate. It is perfectly appropriate to have, somewhere in the links, a path to university news items, but they should not themselves be displayed on the home page. The latter should be clean, with plenty of white space, and with logical and easy to follow navigation links.

Most universities still do not seem to understand what use they can and should make of the internet. But a start would be to avoid excessive self-promotion; it doesn’t work as a PR tool, and it satisfies no other objectives.



June 23, 2012

It has not been the very best late June that I can remember. I believe we have not had quite as severe weather as has been experienced in some other parts of Great Britain, but it has been pretty bad.

Here is how it has looked on the coast just north of Aberdeen.

Aberdeenshire Coast

Aberdeenshire Coast

What to do with all this dissent?

June 19, 2012

Last month the Irish Times published an article by Tom Garvin, a recently retired professor from University College Dublin, in which he suggested that Irish universities were being destroyed by an ‘indescribable grey philistinism’. He concluded:

‘An anti-intellectual and pseudo-commercial bullying has attempted to replace intellectual freedom, a freedom that the nation itself desperately needs, whether or not it realises it.’

Actually Professor Garvin had been down this road before, in an article published in the same newspaper two years ago. And he is clearly not alone, Both then and last month his pieces were followed by letters to the editor that largely agreed with his analysis.

Nor is this just an Irish phenomenon. The website Inside Higher Ed recently reported that a professor of Georgia Southern University had circulated an email to all faculty in which he described his university as dysfunctional and as being led by administrators disconnected from academics and students. I suspect that if I trawled a little more I would find other examples of such dissent.

What does all this tell us? Actually, that’s hard to say. A lecturer from University College Dublin recently told me that such views are, as he put it, the property of an older generation of academics who find it hard to adapt. He suggested that many of these dissidents are uncomfortable not just with new management practices, but also with new technology, and sometimes with the new practice of involving students in decision-making. They are, he suggested, out of touch with a younger generation of academics.

On the other hand, in my recent role as chair of the Scottish review of higher education governance I came across a good few examples of dissent from academics who would not fit into such a category. So what do we do? One of the key requirements of a successful academy is collegiality. This cannot be a substitute for strategy and action, but it should be an accompaniment to it. Universities cannot return to some allegedly golden age of the 1970s or earlier – there wasn’t such a golden age anyway; they must deal with the financial, quality and accountability issues that they now face. But university leaders must also remember that their plans and methods must carry consent, and they must find ways of harnessing that as effectively as possible.

I don’t agree with Professor Garvin. I think he has misunderstood a good deal of what universities now have to cope with. But I believe that he, and others who think like him, should be encouraged to take their case into the heart of the university, and should be allowed to stimulate discussion and, where appropriate, re-appraisal of policy. Universities would be strengthened by this.

Student leadership?

June 12, 2012

Ever since the mid-20th century, when students became more vocal in defence of their interests and universities started cautiously to include them in decision-making, the question has been asked as to how far this process should go. What, in other words, is a ‘student’?

Are students disciples who sit at the professor’s feet? Are they partners in a learning experience? Are they judges of quality in a university? Should they have a hand in curriculum design? Should they determine a lecturer’s career progression? Should they help to appoint the institution’s chief officer? Are they customers, who pay the money that maintains the institution?

As an interesting article in the Guardian newspaper shows, there is no unanimity in these matters. Some academics are enthusiastic supporters of student engagement, while others are concerned that students do not have the maturity to determine or judge programme content, and moreover are conflicted as they have a vested interest.

But these contrasting views demonstrate that, after a couple of decades of higher education reforms of one kind or another, there is little clarity as to what higher education actually is and what it is intended to achieve. The student voice is, as most will agree, a vital part of higher education. Recognising students as partners in education rather than just the recipients of teaching is a vital pedagogical insight.  Perhaps it is time to follow this up with a recognition of students as fellow stakeholders in the universities overall. The student voice, when encouraged, must be a valuable asset.

The end of newsprint?

June 11, 2012

Today marked a significant watershed in my life. This morning, as I do most mornings, I walked to the nearby newsagent. I wanted to buy a baguette for my breakfast, and copies of the two newspapers that I read every day. I bought the baguette. But I bought no newspaper. As I stood looking at the piles of papers, I suddenly asked myself why I was bothering, as I have apps on my iPad that allow me to read both the papers in question in their precise printed form. And so I went home and read the newspapers on the iPad. And I have to admit that it is possible, just possible, that I will not buy a hard copy newspaper ever again.

Of course we already know that newspapers, particularly those that are not coming to grips with the internet age, are dying. A number of them have already folded, and others are soldiering on, but precariously. Others are trying to save themselves by offering access to their websites in return for a payment.

Until recently I didn’t think that web-based newspapers were the future of news reporting. No matter how powerful the computer or how chic the laptop, it just wasn’t how one would read the news over breakfast. So I thought that the more astute newspapers would survive and would be able to continue to print hard copy. Now, with the phenomenal growth of the iPad and other tablet computers, this may be changing. I actually now find it easier to manipulate the newspaper with my fingers than to mess around with the paper pages. And I am not altogether alone in this.

I have a subscription to an iPad-based newspaper subscription service that, for less than £1 a day, lets me download all my normal newspapers in the exact print format. How can I lose?

And yet, I wonder what the future holds for news reporting. First, will there be a viable business model that sustains a network of reporters and correspondents for a coherent news organisation, not just services that take copy from others? Will advertisers support the kind of model I am now using? Will the anarchy of the internet, and the fact that anybody can set up a news site, destroy the reliability of news reporting? Will the tabloid world change, or maybe even disappear?

An uncertain world lies ahead.

So where do we want to be on this league table?

June 4, 2012

Well, you probably thought that you had seen all the university rankings, both locally and globally. But think again. A student website,, has produced a league table with a difference: one which measures in which UK universities students have the most sex. The results was assembled from the findings of a survey of 4,656 students in 100 universities. The resulting table has Bangor University in Wales (and we won’t go into the interpretation suggested by the students of the university’s name) at the top, while at the bottom we have the University of Essex. My own university, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, is at number 25, and I have no idea whether this pleases me or whether I’d prefer it somewhere else in the table.

Scotland has only one university in the top 20 (Heriot Watt at number 2), while Wales is dramatically over-represented there with four universities. But it absolutely impossible to identify any particular trend in the rankings. There is no overall difference between pre- and post-1992 universities, or between the regions (except for Wales). So it is possible that the results are a fluke governed purely by the habits of this particular group of students, and that the pattern could change dramatically in a year or two; we shall have to wait and see.

Clearly it is not saying anything very new to point out that there is a fair amount of sex in universities. But this also reminds us that universities need to take seriously issues such as sexual health and personal safety, as well as various codes of ethics.

In the meantime, I suspect that this table is not being highlighted in any university’s PR materials.