Archive for December 2012

The Christmas story

December 25, 2012

Christmas has been an extraordinarily resilient festival, surviving theological and political turmoil over the ages. Of course we all know that Christmas Day falls on December 25th, but then again, the event it commemorates – the birth of Jesus Christ – may have taken place on any day of the year, as there is no reliable record of the date. It was not a festival kept in early Christian times. The key elements of today’s Christmas festivities, such as the socialising and exchange of gifts, did not emerge until much later – some of them not until the 19th century.

By the time of the Reformation some of the reformers had become hostile to Christmas in part because they regarded it as an un-biblical festival, in part because they disliked the catholic resonance of the ‘Christ-Mass’ concept, but largely because of what they regarded as the excesses ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. This led to Christmas being banned in England under Oliver Cromwell – alongside all other religious feasts apart from the normal Sunday religious observances. Christmas was also banned under the influence of the Puritans in some parts of the American colonies around the same time.

So maybe Christmas has an unreliable pedigree, and there is still no shortage of people today who will argue that we have got the spirit of Christmas all wrong and that it is nothing more than an orgy of wasteful excess. But as for me, I don’t particularly care whether people celebrate the Christian festival (as I do), or pursue a secular escape from (what at any rate in Europe is) the winter, or try to have a family get-together during a holiday season. I believe that communities need holidays, and should be able to enjoy them.

I wish all readers of this blog a happy, peaceful and refreshing Christmas!



So what are you in university for?

December 18, 2012

Why does a student go to university? Is it to pursue deep learning in the company of other committed students and brilliant faculty? Or is it to get the passport to a job, in the form of the degree parchment? As in a number of countries students are having to put their hands in their pockets to pay for their tuition, the question as to what exactly they want to buy is becoming more directly relevant. If the customer is paying and the customer is king, we had better give them what they want. Whatever that is.

One way in which this question is being thrown into relief is through the growth of online university courses that can be accessed fully for free. The latest initiative of this kind is Futurelearn, which is providing free online access to courses from 12 UK universities, including the Open University. Another similar initiative, Coursera, was launched earlier in the year, and according to its website it has over 2 million students taking courses from one or more of the 33 partner universities. Furthermore technology giant Apple has been pushing its iTunes U concept for a while, with some success – and it is now available through a special iPad app. Individual universities – such as MIT – have also got into the game.

So, if you can take the very best courses from the very best universities for free, why bother ‘going’ to university in the traditional sense? There are a several reasons, in fact, including the absence of a campus experience and real interaction with fellow participants in the educational journey. But another critical reason – the critical reason I would think – is that these programmes do not give you a degree.

As in so many other sectors of modern life, the internet is changing the assumptions of higher education, but it is not yet clear what is emerging at the other end. Clearly there are also business questions: if you are offering free access to courses, how is that being funded? And the answer generally is through advertising. But the biggest question is whether free online courses, without certification, can find a market, and more particularly whether they will destroy the existing ‘market’ for university degrees. Probably not, because the formal qualification is still the key objective for most. But if this gets more and more expensive, and the return on such an investment gets less obvious, some may begin to think again. But then, perhaps there is another model altogether, that combines technology-smart methods with employment-aware content, affordable cost and secure quality assurance, with a degree at the end. That may be the golden ticket.

It’s an interesting world in the digital age.

Fragmented higher education?

December 11, 2012

In the mid-1970s I was a student at Trinity College Dublin. At that time the College was re-assessing its role in Irish public life, but nevertheless most of the students felt comfortably superior to their counterparts at University College Dublin. TCD was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. UCD was much newer, having its origins in either the mid-19th century or the early 20th century, depending on how you interpreted its history. At any rate TCD students tended to see the ‘other place’ as something of a parvenu, trading in vocational or maybe rural values that were worthy but not high value.

In the mid-1990s, when I was a Professor of the University of Hull, staff and students there felt themselves to be nicely superior to the then next-door University of Humberside (it later became the University of Lincoln), which had only just graduated from Polytechnic status. In the following decade I was President of Dublin City University, an institution whose transition to university status in 1989 had been fiercely resisted by many of those in the existing universities. And meanwhile back in the UK, the institutions that had become universities in 1992 were, in general parlance, seen as being in a different category from the pre-1992 institutions, referred to as ‘new’ or ‘modern’ universities.

Now a report has been published by a firm of consultants that suggests that in the United Kingdom (although actually I think the authors mean England) there is a taxonomy of universities with four distinct groups: (i) internationally competitive research universities; (ii) UK-focused research universities; (iii) teaching-focused universities with a UK-wide and international student base; and (iv) teaching-focused institutions with a predominantly regional student base. If one were to accept that these categories reflect recognisable divisions in the sector, it would suggest a fragmented system based not so much on diversity of mission as on age and perceived respectability. In football nobody is in League 2 because that’s where they prefer to be: they are there because their resources and reputation doesn’t allow them to play in the Premier League. In the university league, history and resources place (to use an example referred to in the above report) Northampton University in the regional teaching league, but if they could I have no doubt they’d love to be up there in the international champions’ league.

Britain loves a class system, and that’s what they’ve got in higher education also. As a result university ambitions are built around upward social mobility, whether that is attainable on traditional methods or not. But actually, what the system needs is not a yearning for the good times of league table elitism, but a genuine diversity of mission, with each mission being pursued because the institution believes in it and would want it even if something more traditionally respectable were available instead.

Today’s society needs at least some universities that are willing to be different, and that are willing to experiment with imaginative aspirations in relation to pedagogy, economic and social impact, cultural regeneration, and so forth. These aspirations need to be seen by those institutions as representing excellence that is as desirable as anything offered by Oxford, and they need to be quality-marked accordingly. The trick to achieving this lies in niche-based prioritisation and high value resourcing. And success probably lies in being visibly outside any category that a consultant’s report might produce.

It is time to diversify higher education based on vision and mission, not on history and old-age respectability.

Winter days

December 7, 2012

Winter has arrived in Aberdeen, and over the last few days we have had freezing cold temperatures and the first serious fall of snow. The scene below is the RGU campus in Garthdee, with Garthdee House in the background (where my office will be from spring 2013).

Garthdee, RGU, Aberdeen

Garthdee, RGU, Aberdeen

If you want to see a close up (and less wintry) photograph of Garthdee House, you can see one here.

Still struggling with the access story

December 4, 2012

It has, rightly, become a public policy priority to ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have a realistic chance to get a university degree. Governments in many countries, including those in these islands, have attempted to incentivise universities to recruit and support access students, and to reprimand those not making too much of an effort. In England there is a whole new agency, the Office of Fair Access, tasked with trying to ensure that high tuition fees don’t work against the disadvantaged. In Ireland 16 higher education institutions operate the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR), under which students from disadvantaged backgrounds can get into degree courses even where they don’t satisfy the normal entry requirements. In Scotland the government has just published a Bill which, when enacted, will allow the government to make funding dependent on the institution meeting targets for the recruitment of access students.

But despite all these initiatives and obvious determination, participation levels in higher education by the disadvantaged are still unacceptably low, in some cases extraordinarily so. A few days ago St Andrews University (famous for its royal graduates) disclosed that it had admitted just 14 disadvantaged students at the beginning 0f the session; it went on to argue that it couldn’t do more than that without compromising standards. Furthermore, a few weeks ago the most recent statistics in Ireland revealed that, despite a decade and a half of no tuition fees, the proportion of disadvantaged students going to university had barely grown.

There are some conclusions to be drawn from all this. First, free higher education visibly helps middle income groups, but does very little (perhaps nothing) for the more disadvantaged. Indeed it could be argued that the money necessarily spent on the wealthy middle classes in the absence of tuition fees leaves less scope for targeted access programmes for the poor; this is so particularly during times of budgetary constraints. Of course these are political choices, and it is our duty in the universities to work constructively with them, but free higher education is no silver bullet for problems with access.

Secondly, as long as universities believe that admitting disadvantaged students undermines standards not much will change. Poorer students go to less well resourced schools, potentially with other social problems. They will produce less impressive exam performances, despite the fact that many of them are very bright. If no allowance is made for this, nothing will change. In my experience access students, once admitted even with worse school results, will often outperform those that entered by the normal routes. The Irish HEAR project is a good one, and universities like St Andrews should perhaps have another look at what has been achieved by others.

Thirdly, solving the access problem is not a cheap undertaking. In particular, it is vital that access students, once admitted, are given strong care and support to ensure they stay the course, and this needs to be resourced. An average size university that spends less than £1 million each year on special services and supports for access students is probably not doing enough. The consolation is that access programmes are an attractive cause for philanthropy. But governments must also be aware that access targets are pretty useless if there is no targeted funding.

It is entirely positive that there is so much talk about university access these days. But there is still much to do.