Archive for July 2012

What should universities do with ‘contact hours’?

July 30, 2012

For the past few years a big search has been on to find the most useful key performance indicators with which to judge the performance of universities. So the view has been expressed by politicians and in the media that there must be some metrics which most accurately reveal the productivity of the academy. One that is getting much more attention is the concept of ‘contact hours’. This is an indicator that discloses the number of hours per week during which students experience formal teaching or tutorial support.

This is not an entirely pointless exercise. When I was President of Dublin City University we were able to establish a pretty unambiguous link between student attendance at classes and examination performance. But attendance at what, exactly? There are growing doubts in some circles about the usefulness of large lectures, in part because as a medium for transmitting knowledge it has been overtaken by the internet and other freely available sources, and in part because lectures are seen as too passive a learning method. On the other hand, small group tutorials and seminars are seen as being much more effective tools, not least because they are more participative and allow greater monitoring of individual student performance.

But then again, as higher education funding dips, large group classes are much more economical and may allow the idea to be sustained that students are enjoying a sufficient number of ‘contact hours’, even if the pedagogical value of the exercise may be more debatable.

All this is part of the growing uncertainty as to what universities should actually be doing to allow students to have the best possible educational experience. As all the accumulated assumptions and traditions of higher education crumble, and as the academy faces serious scepticism from its stakeholders, it has become more and more difficult to develop a confident and well judged pedagogical framework. Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside for now until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic cliché, it’s just a box-ticking exercise.


Why do we fund research? And who should be funded?

July 24, 2012

The history of economic development and prosperity in the developed world over the past half century is, it could be argued, essentially the history of academic research. Universities became the powerhouses they now are when governments recognised that a much faster paced economic development depended on the growth of knowledge centres with world class scholarship and the potential for translation of that scholarship into cultural, social or economic development. The prototype for this was the North Carolina Research Triangle Park based around Raleigh and Durham, but others followed and by now there are several high value academic centres around the world which have been a magnet for growth and regeneration.

So we know, therefore, that high value research produces development and growth, or at least can do if managed well. So what do we conclude from this? The most common, but in some ways also the most politically lazy, conclusion has been to go for what is known as ‘research concentration’, under which an ever smaller number of institutions and of researchers are allocated public funding. The thinking behind this is that the capacity of institutions to develop genuinely world class research is limited and requires critical mass, and that this is best achieved in old, usually somewhat traditional, wealthier universities. This approach is now also being adopted by foundations funding research, with the added complication that research funding is now targeting individuals rather than institutions – with serious implications as seen in this report in the Guardian.

The impact of all this has, I believe, not really been understood by key decision-makers. The new trends are indeed concentrating research on individuals and, inevitably, a small number of institutions. This will tend to shift investment to older city locations hosting older universities. Or rather, it will tend to make unlikely the emergence of more research triangle parks like that in North Carolina, which in economic terms is still the most successful model. It is also unhitching research funding from the usability of research outcomes, and in particular from any link with local development needs. So for example, research concentration in Scotland if done on this basis will tend to undermine any economic development policy that the Scottish government may have in mind, and in particular any not focused on the Central Belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

To say that the purpose of research funding is to produce world class research is well and good. But if that’s the logic, then probably nobody should be funding research anywhere other than California, New England, Bangalore and Southern China; certainly there would be little logic in funding research in the UK and Ireland. But that would be daft. It is time to ask far more searching questions about the purpose of research, and to be much smarter in funding it.

Not making the grade?

July 17, 2012

It is possible to argue that, whatever those of us in the lecturing profession might think or might like to think, from a student point of view the purpose of participating in a university degree programme is to get the degree – the unit of currency for initial career advancement. In fact, it is not just the degree, but the grade recorded. So for many jobs now, the assumption is that students really need to get a First Class degree if they are to stand any chance of employment in the more sought after jobs.

It is often suggested – and this has been discussed in this blog – that over recent years there has been noticeable grade inflation, with students receiving objectively unmerited marks and with ever larger numbers bunched up near the top of the grade heap. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am not convinced that this ‘inflation’ is unrelated to performance or merit, but even so it is clear that the spread of marks is not as extensive as it used to be, whatever the reasons. This may prejudice the utility of marks or grades as a tool of differentiation between graduates of different levels of ability.

So is the system of grading no longer useful? Some think so, and most recently Professor Jonathan Wolff of University College London has suggested in the Guardian newspaper that we should give all that up:

‘I’m coming to the conclusion that we should simply issue students with transcripts to record their study, and leave it at that. ‘

Of course there is a whole school of thought that competitive grading of achievement is wrong anyway, and that nobody should be encouraged to think of themselves as more able than anyone else. This is how the issue has been considered in school education:

‘Here are two concrete things teachers can do. First, even if they’re forced to give students a grade at the end of the term, they should avoid putting a number or letter on individual assignments. This helps to make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible – and therefore minimizes the harm they do when students are thinking about them. Second, teachers can help neutralize the destructive effects of grades – and support students’ autonomy at the time same — by allowing students to participate in deciding what grade they’ll get at the end.’

Seen this way, degrees would become certificates of attendance rather than performance. And as we are moving speedily away from concepts of physical attendance, given the technological alternatives or more generally lower levels of inclination to turn up, they may not be much more than the confirmation that the period of registration for a course has come to an end without the student deliberately dropping out in between. What we need to consider is whether that is sufficient. I’m afraid I don’t think so.

Making the grade

July 9, 2012

About ten years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, a colleague there put a proposal to the university’s Academic Council (Senate) to drop academic dress for graduations. At any rate, he wanted gowns and hoods to become optional, both for students and for staff. There was a lively debate, at the end of which the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. DCU is a thoroughly up to date university without much respect for tradition, but this proposal found very little support. So what is about graduations – these ceremonies with anachronistic clothes, formal choreography, lots of amateur dramatics – that makes them such significant events, even today?

I ask this at the beginning of a week that will see me attend seven graduation ceremonies in Robert Gordon University (and speak at all of them). I shall see the usual mix of apparently reluctant (but in truth very proud) graduands, out to please their parents but actually really pleased themselves, those sporting really improbable footwear and jewellery,  waistcoats worn with jeans, everything you can imagine. And like many ceremonies, the graduations will have a deeper significance than the external formalities might suggest. People ask about the meaning of it all, but in the end large numbers do come.

Perhaps the most significant point one can make about graduations is that they foster a sense of belonging in the academy, that includes those who have completed their formal learning but still remain part of the institution’s wider community. And, who knows, maybe the dressing up is a good way of illustrating the value of shared scholarship, even in a modern academy.

Recession photos

July 3, 2012

In the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, during a time of great economic hardship, the mood was captured for posterity by some hugely iconic photographs. It is of course true that, in the current decade, we do not have the same homeless migrant workers and farmers, or the abandoned towns covered in dust. But we do have some considerable hardship, particularly for those left on the margins of society.

This photo was taken last week in Aberdeen. I was struck by the complete lack of personal connection between the man sitting on the pavement and everyone else.