Archive for October 2012

Christmas is coming, not (yet)!

October 31, 2012

One of the hazards of being in public buildings with PA systems in late October or thereabouts is that you are transported into a weird world where Rudolph is pushing his red nose through a winter wonderland in which Slade wishes everyone a ‘merry Christmas’. Roy Wood’s dream has nearly come true, and it more or less is ‘Christmas every day’.

Right now I am waiting for a rather delayed plane in Edinburgh airport. And my mood is not helped by the Christmas music. Paul McCartney may be ‘simply having a wonderful Christmas time’, but I’m not, nor am I intending to for nearly two months. I hope I can find a corner in which the music cannot be heard. Now.


Distributing research funding

October 30, 2012

I have nothing fundamentally against the Russell Group – some of my best friends work for member universities – but their statements do sometimes alarm me. For readers not familiar with the Russell Group, it is a London-based ‘mission group’ of (from its website) ’24 leading UK universities’. Its main role, as it understands this, is to promote the interests of these universities; though it has been suggested also that it is a would-be university cartel with price fixing on its mind. That may or may not be a fair comment, but, you know…

Anyway, the Russell Group has just published a paper in which it suggests that concentrating funding on a small number of research-intensive universities (by which it clearly means its member institutions) is in the wider public interest. The argument here is that intellectual excellence and knowledge innovation is promoted most effectively when it is resourced in a small but heavily promoted group of institutions, who then develop critical mass and are thus able to compete globally.

As we have noted here before, the idea of research concentration has taken hold of public policy formulation, and politicians in particular appear to be open to its attractions. But still, there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning. National higher education systems do not gain international prominence because of a small number of favoured institutions: they gain recognition if the whole system demonstrates excellence. Knowledge-intensive investments in a country are made attractive by an overall culture of high value learning and research, not by pockets of achievement in a small number of institutions.

The task for the UK is to maintain a university sector which is recognisably excellent across the great majority of its institutions. This ensures also that excellence is both geographically spread (though probably in regional clusters) and nurtured within a variety of institutional missions. Research concentration promoted primarily in traditional universities will fail to secure some of the more desirable inward investment. To avoid unnecessary duplication, institutions should be encouraged to specialise in the more advanced areas, and then to pool key academics between universities in inter-intsitutional research programmes and partnerships.

It is of course right that research funding should not be distributed so widely that it is ineffective; it needs to be selective. But that selectivity should not focused on institutions; it should recognise excellent people, wherever they may work. So, with the greatest respect to our friends in the Russell Group, its approach to this should be viewed with some scepticism.

Eccentricity of the intellect

October 23, 2012

Anyone who, like me, has studied or worked in Trinity College Dublin over the past half century is familiar with the historian R.B. McDowell. Let me say right away that I’m not suggesting we all know anything, even in outline, of what McDowell taught or researched, but we know what he looked like and how he appeared on the campus.

Robert Brendan McDowell died just over a year ago, having very nearly reached the age of 100. He was instantly recognisable: in all weathers he crossed the campus wearing what looked like three or four layers of coats and a battered hat (all of which looked like they had seen better days). He was constantly talking or mumbling, even when nobody was with him. He always walked fast. At dinner he would wear an old gown that was stained and torn in several places. However, if you were sitting near him you would hear a never-ending flow of comments and anecdotes, many of them highly amusing.

About 25 years ago McDowell and another TCD Fellow wrote a history of the College. I remember sitting next to him at Commons (dinner) at the time he was writing this, and in explaining his work he remarked to me that one of the sad discoveries he had made that there were no longer any eccentrics in academic life. I bit my lip.

Of course to many in the outside world the academy is all about other-worldly eccentricity. To many observers this makes old professors endearing, but also emphasises their remoteness from ‘real life’: academics are thought sometimes to inhabit a world in which the normal laws and customs of human behaviour and relevance don’t need to apply. I confess I find this a difficult concept to address. Eccentrics are endearing, but more importantly, an eccentric approach to knowledge can open up new ways of thinking, or facilitate important discoveries. I understand the desire to protect and preserve this aspect of academic life. On the other hand, universities should not be presented chiefly as places in which harmless eccentrics pursue daft ideas, some of which may by some fluke turn out to be important.

Certainly academic freedom should, amongst other things, allow and nurture some degree of intellectual unorthodoxy, which may present to some as eccentricity. But universities are now increasingly institutions that need to answer some quite direct questions posed to them by society, and other-wordliness may not be the response primarily sought. This is a hard balance for universities to get right. But whatever your university might be, I do hope that there will still be some room in it for a person like R.B. McDowell.

So how are we coping with social media?

October 16, 2012

I tend to be an early adopter of new technology and all things online. But when it comes to the social media, I was a late developer. I first became aware of the whole scene when, as President of Dublin City University, I was approached by a colleague who wanted to block access by students to Bebo. You may not even remember Bebo now, it’s so very 2007. But in that year it was suddenly all the rage, and students were hogging access to library workstations while chatting to their online friends.

The early lead enjoyed by Bebo was, as we all know, wiped out by the all-conquering Facebook. And along came Twitter also. One of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the social networking revolution was that older online vehicles began to fade. From about 2008 you could see students gradually abandoning the use of email, as their virtual interaction moved to Facebook. Twitter, which was not initially popular with students but was more influential amongst more mature internet users, eventually also caught on and brought the culture of mobile phone texting to internet communications and commentary.

But it has to be said, the academy was nonplussed. It simply could not understand what this was all about. Academics are, in terms of social trends, not always at the cutting edge, and Facebook and Twitter just seemed alien to many of them. Even now, more than half a decade after social networking really took off, most academics have no social networking presence at all; and while universities in their corporate sense do, most have absolutely no idea how to use it. Indeed the risk is that the university world will finally come to grips with Facebook and Twitter just as the online world is moving on to something else.

I recently had a long conversation with an old friend who is a very senior professor in another university. For him, the social media represent a flight from intellectual discourse to ephemeral trivia; a whole generation of young people turning their backs on scholarship in favour of gossip.

For me, it is very different. I suspect some find the social media so difficult because they make directly visible the conversations that previously took place privately in the pub or in a student residence. But this interaction always took place; what’s new is that it is now on the same platforms that also support, or could support, academic conversations. We must not only get used to this, we must be anxious to have some of our scholarship in the places where students, and others, actually want to be. We must look again at how we communicate what we do, and how we engage our partners in the educational journey. And maybe we should remember that pretty much the same reservations were voiced about the printing press when it first emerged.

As for me, I joined Bebo, Facebook and Twitter in 2007. I have no regrets. It is time to harness social networking, and not resist it.

The West

October 14, 2012

Last month, for about three days I visited the West of Scotland, and stayed on the shore of Loch Torridon. What you can see here is part of the very scenic coastal village of Plockton.



October 9, 2012

One innovation about to appear in the British higher education scene is the ‘Higher Education Achievement Report’, or HEAR. Essentially, this will be an end-of-year report for each student setting out what the student has covered in her or his degree course and what they have achieved. This will then be handed to the student, who can use it for a variety of purposes, probably in particular when applying for jobs.

While it is inevitable that this document will replace the existing system of degree classifications, some have speculated that, over time, it might eclipse grades. Indeed, in the original report that first proposed the HEAR concept, exactly this outcome was sought:

‘We have designed a development process intentionally so that, as the work progresses, and the HEAR becomes established, the benefits in terms of the richness of information it yields about each individual student will increasingly come to be acknowledged and understood. As a consequence, we intend that the existing degree classification system will decline in importance until it should no longer be considered necessary…’

The expectation that students, employers and others will abandon grades in favour of a general report is probably naive. Grades are too much part of the culture of higher education and recruitment for employment, to mention nothing else, for that to happen. I suspect they will be with us for some time yet. Whether the HEAR concept will however add some colour to the marks is something we may want to observe with interest.

No exchange

October 8, 2012

It’s probably a good thing that the UK did not join the Euro, given what has happened to the latter currency and its uncertain future. For all that, it is the currency of Britain’s key trading partners, and must be what any bureau de change trades in most. Or so you’d think.

Today I needed to give €60 to someone who is about to travel from Scotland to a country in the Euro zone. Easy, I thought. I’d go into the nearest bank and hand over some £50 or so and get the necessary banknotes. Job done.

Not a bit! In the first bank, a very nice lady at the counter looked simply stunned when I asked her for the currency. This was a request that had clearly never crossed her desk before. She was most solicitous, but this didn’t extend to having any solution. She absolutely couldn’t imagine how a bank would change Pounds for Euros. The whole concept was new to her. She would definitely look into this, totally, but only when her manager returned. I started to ask when that would be, but realised this was a waste of time and moved on.

Into the second bank, just across the road. Yes, the nice man behind the counter had definitely heard of Euros, and was absolutely willing to believe the transaction could be done. He had no idea how, but there was a supervisor somewhere who, he assured me, understood even the most obscure banking transactions and would help me, no doubt about it at all. So off he went looking for the supervisor. He returned, some ten minutes later, with the very keen supervisor, who was clearly willing to expand his horizons. Yes absolutely, Euros could be provided. First, was I a customer? Of course, I said, I’m here and am ready to do business, in other words a customer. I wasn’t a regulator, if that’s what he meant. No, no – did I have an account in this branch? No; in this bank, yes, but not this branch. Pursed lips, whistling noises, furrowed brows. Could I prove I was an account holder in that other branch? I could. OK then, he was willing to take on the Euro adventure, just this once.

So how much did I want? €60. More pursed lips and quiet whistling noises. No can do €60. €100, probably; €200, definitely. But alas, no €60. Well, I’ll be in Ireland again before long, so I can accept the €100. Off he goes on a search for this bit of currency. Another 10 minutes of my life lost. Triumphant return, clasping a sealed envelope said to contain the elusive currency; though for some reason, I mustn’t open the envelope there and then, which I was about to do, feeling the need to check it out.

Well, half an afternoon later I am able to give my friend the €60. But for goodness sake, does this really have to be so difficult? Do we really never change currency any more? It is true that I don’t, normally; I just use an ATM at my destination. But there must be others who, occasionally, need to get some foreign exchange before they travel, or to give or send to someone. Was I really making such an exotic request?

Are our universities really destined for long term decline?

October 5, 2012

The latest university world rankings have prompted another round of questions about the future global distribution of higher education excellence and strength. The Times Higher Education 2012-13 rankings have seen a little slippage in the position of some universities in the western hemisphere, with Ireland and Scotland both experiencing this phenomenon. Ireland no longer has any university in the top 100 universities globally; Scotland still has one university (Edinburgh) in the top 100, at number 32 (and rising), but other Scottish institutions have fallen, in some cases significantly.

Speaking more generally about UK universities, the Times Higher‘s rankings editor, Phil Baty, remarked:

‘Outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, England’s world-class universities face a collapse into global mediocrity, while investment in top research universities in Asia is starting to pay off.’

While there is indeed some drift, the prediction of a British collapse into mediocrity may be a bit premature. It is absolutely right that some of the emerging countries have made major investments in higher education, as one would expect. But this has not produced any instant challenge for global leadership. The Times Higher top 20 contains only one university not in the United States or the UK, and it is in Switzerland. The top Asian universities (from Japan and Singapore, respectively) come in at number 27 and 29. The top university from a BRIC country (if you exclude Hong Kong) is Peking University, at number 46, and the only other institution from that grouping in the top 100 is also from China, at number 52. And while there are some slight changes from last year in those positions, they are actually not hugely significant. Peking University rose by three places.

Furthermore, the success of universities in China, Singapore, Korea and Japan – and only a very small number of the thousands of Asian universities make it into any rankings at all – is largely based on these institutions ‘westernising’ their educational and research methods and pouring in money. But that hasn’t just started last year; it has been a phenomenon of the past decade, and while the results are certainly there, they are not startling.

It is obvious enough that as some countries make a transition into a more developed economic state, their universities will benefit from more investment and higher levels of ambition. But actually, it is rather remarkable that this has not had a much greater impact on the rankings. Then again, this is not to say that there aren’t issues here to be addressed. The uncertainty about university funding in these islands has certainly had an impact, but so have other factors, including the inconsistencies and peculiarities of migration policies as they affect student movement, and the trend for major companies to seek university links away from the more traditional set.

What may be much more interesting, however, is this: there may be a hint in the rankings that the university of the future is no longer necessarily the ancient, classical, blue-skies-research institution. The new leader, as exemplified in the world’s number 1 university, the California Institute of Technology, may be a more focused, networked and translational university. Apart from Caltech, other institutions that also reflect this profile have climbed up the rankings. As we try to work out what the role of higher education is to be in the future, that may be the more interesting trend.

Give us a loan?

October 2, 2012

As the complexity of higher education funding, and the scarcity of available resources to provide funding, has become greater, an increasingly popular method of addressing it has been the idea of student loans. When the Westminster government introduced its recent framework for increased university fees for England, ministers emphasised that a university degree programme was still accessible to students without paying anything up front, and indeed without repaying anything until a reasonable salary threshold has been reached. By providing student loans, the system allows students to embark upon their studies without either them or their parents having to fork out anything at that point.

So is this as good as it sounds? No financial hurdles for students while studying, but financial benefits for universities from fees? Actually, England was not first to try this idea. Australia has been operating a fees/loans system for some time. It was introduced in 1989 as the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’ (HECS), which has more recently been replaced by the ‘Higher Education Loan Programme’ (HELP). This scheme has been used as a model for higher education funding programmes contemplated or introduced elsewhere, including in Ireland. Student loan programmes are also common in the United States.

However, all these schemes are somewhat problematic. In Australia it was estimated in 2010 that outstanding student loans debt was $15.8 billion. In the United States student debt overtook credit card debt around the same time. Furthermore, it has been revealed in America that where graduates begin to re-pay their student loans, nearly 10 per cent default within two years. It is not unlikely that this pattern will be repeated in England, and if it is, it will create a whole new funding issue as the expected resources from loan repayments do not fully materialise.

There is, I believe, a strong case for tuition fees paid by the well off, with financial support for those who cannot afford to pay. There is also a case for state funding of higher education fees, provided the state understands the scale of the funding requirement. There seems to me to be no convincing case for loan schemes. They deter students, and they create unpredictable financial issues. It is time to move away from the whole idea.