Archive for March 2013


March 29, 2013

This is a rather personal post, for which my apologies. Long term readers of this blog will, from time to time, have come across references to my dog. Harvey died this week, having only just been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Thankfully he did not suffer long.

Harvey (2006-2013)

Harvey (2006-2013)

Harvey (a German Shepherd-Collie cross) was a rescue dog, given to us by the Dublin Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals in late 2006, when he was about six months old; he had been very badly treated by his original owners. For the next four years he lived with us on the DCU campus, where he became a popular resident, making friends with staff and students. He did have his own view of things. For example, he formed the opinion that nobody had any business being out on the campus after 11 pm (and he was very precise about the time), and if on a late night walk we came across anyone, he showed his displeasure by growling and baring his teeth – whereas at other times he was wholly friendly. Otherwise it was his quest every night to track down one of the also resident hedgehogs or squirrels.

In 2010, when my term of office as President of DCU came to an end, he moved with us to Ballsbridge, and a year later to Aberdeen. In all of these locations he had a wide circle of both human and canine friends.

He understood rules and regulations, but was not necessarily inclined to adhere to them. He was keen on hygiene: if he came home dirty from a walk, it was his view that he should not mess up his dog bed or even the floor: lying on one of our sofas or indeed one of our beds in such circumstances made much more sense to him.

Harvey had a condition called pancreatic insufficiency, which meant that his pancreas could not help in absorbing food. As a result he had to take daily pancreatic enzyme pills, and could only eat entirely fat free food – a real hardship for a dog who just loved exotic meals. But otherwise he was extremely healthy. It was only just over under two weeks ago that he very suddenly became sick and could not hold down his food. Shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. He died on Tuesday.

Dogs can be very real friends, and can have strong personalities. We all miss Harvey.

Filthy lucre

March 27, 2013

A few years ago I had a meeting with a rather successful Danish businessman. As we talked, he had the rather irritating habit of jangling the coins in his pocket. This was annoying in itself, but as I have now discovered, it made the handshake with him one of the more dangerous activities I have undertaken. According to recent research, Danish coins and banknotes are the dirtiest, most bacteria-infested pieces of money you can come across.

As it happens, the Euro, and even Sterling, do relatively well. But the best bet is to go fully cashless and refuse to do business with coins and notes. And avoid meetings with businessmen jangling Danish coins.

A graduate world

March 26, 2013

Recently I took a taxi to get to the airport; it doesn’t matter right now where this was. As is often the case, I got into a conversation with the driver. Having discovered what my job is, he told me that he was a graduate of two different universities: he had a BA in a humanities subject, and an MSc in a branch of social science. Did he need these degrees to drive his taxi? No, not really. So was the taxi business not his first choice? Well actually, it was, and he was sticking with it. And he was thinking about another degree.

Of course my driver’s thirst for knowledge was wholly admirable, and from the conversation I was able to conclude that he performed well at university and received significant intellectual stimulation from his studies. I could not for a moment argue that he shouldn’t have gone to university. But still, I couldn’t help wondering about it; perhaps this was someone who should be making use of MOOCs (to pick up a discussion we have had on this blog recently).

To be honest, this is a topic I struggle with, in part because there really isn’t a general understanding of how many should avail of higher education. It is easy and right to argue that the old system in which universities just educated a social elite was fundamentally wrong. It is also easy, indeed necessary, to emphasise that higher education must be available to talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the same ease of access as enjoyed by those who were born relatively privileged. But once we have agreed that, how far do we take this? What percentage of our population do we expect to be graduates?

In most developed countries, the percentage has been moving steadily upwards. According to OECD statistics (which however only take us as far as 2006), the proportion of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 with tertiary degrees in most countries is now well over 25 per cent. In some countries it is significantly higher: in Canada it is 47 per cent, and in the United States and Japan it is around 40 per cent. In Ireland and the UK it is around 30 per cent. In most of these countries the percentage had grown by somewhere between 5 and 10 points over the previous decade.

If you look at the proportion of those at the typical graduation age who have a degree, the numbers are also interesting. The largest percentage is in Iceland, at an amazing 63 per cent. Poland and Finland manage nearly 50 per cent. Ireland has an impressive 45 per cent, significantly beating the United Kingdom at just under 40 per cent. Outside of the OECD, the proportion in China is at around 20 per cent, but in 30 years this has shot up from a mere 1.8 per cent.

So where should all this be going? What are we trying to do with higher education? If it is mainly about careers and employment, what impact might very high participation levels be having on professions that involve significant skills not taught in universities? What future do we want to have, or not have, for apprenticeships? If higher education is not about vocational preparation, should we then logically want to have everyone go to university? No country has ever really addressed these issues. Some (for example, Ireland) set more and more ambitious targets for higher education participation, but without any real debate on the implications. If universities are, quite properly, not intended to accommodate social elites, should they also not be host to intellectual or knowledge-based elites?

Some have argued that high levels of university participation compromise standards and increase drop-out rates. I think we should treat such arguments with care, in case they mask social elitism. But perhaps the time has come for a much more explicit debate about higher education, what it is for and who should be encouraged to participate.

Texting the course

March 19, 2013

Here’s a phenomenon I hope doesn’t catch on: I recently talked in an airport departure lounge with a student (studying at another university) who told me that his entire knowledge for the forthcoming exams came from mobile phone texts that his girlfriend, who was apparently a more conscientious attender of classes, had sent him summarising the syllabus. He had attended no lectures or tutorials. He had read no books. He had her texts. I hope, really hope, that he was pulling my leg, but I fear he wasn’t. He had, it seemed, the ultimate ‘textbook’, and he was quite confident that he could pass. I never even got to asking him how he had handled essays and assignments, that question occurred to me too late.

But the extreme nature of this particular study technique perhaps illustrates a broader issue. The conventional textbook sold for an outrageous price by a small band of publishers is, one hopes, on the way out. The internet in particular is undermining their business model, and we’ll be none the worse for that. In one interesting development, an American community college now runs a course that uses only open source material, and the students therefore do not need to buy anything. The college calculates that this saves each student $2,000 per annum.

For many lecturers the textbook was a comforting prop, providing them with course materials that needed no assembling. For students, such books were often profoundly anti-intellectual, suggesting to them (even where that was not the authors’ intention) that there is a ‘correct’ answer to every question, even highly theoretical ones. However, it is important that what replaces them is not just smartly digital, but is also part of a genuine introduction to real scholarship. I suspect that the post-textbook course materials handed out or made available on online learning platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle are often unimaginative and as prescriptive as the old textbooks – though of course there are also many examples of genuinely good practice.

New technology has freed the universities and colleges from the clutches of publishing cartels. But that must lead to something more profound than a narrow range of online materials; or your girlfriend’s mobile phone texts.

Higher education: an era of radical change?

March 12, 2013

As readers of this blog will know, I have taken the view for some time that there is room for a new university model within higher education. I am of course not alone in that view, nor is this second decade of the new millennium the only period in which such thoughts have been explored. I recently looked at some public lectures given in various universities in the 1940s, and one recurring theme – probably prompted in part by the re-thinking of pretty much everything at the end of World War 2 – was that universities needed and would experience radical change.

Predictions of a sweeping away of traditional higher education models have become commonplace. The most recent contribution to this genre has come from the UK think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research. In an essay (An Avalanche is Coming) published this month by the left-leaning Institute, the authors argue that we are about to face ‘an avalanche of change’ in higher education that may ‘sweep the system away.’ The growth of lifelong learning, the so-called MOOCs and the arrival of non-university competitors in higher education are amongst the developments the authors (led by Sir Michael Barber) believe will trigger this cataclysm. They fear that universities may be swept away because in the university system change has been too slow and incremental.

Leaving aside for a moment a tendency by the authors to nurture their snowy metaphor beyond what is serviceable, are they right in predicting this violent disturbance? The clue lies in part in how they interpret recent higher education history. The authors correctly describe a large number of important developments that have had an impact on higher education, but then seem to assume that these have not fundamentally altered the system. But their own metrics suggest otherwise. Numbers have exploded, research and publication has become pervasive, technology has changed pedagogy, economic development has influenced funding, and so forth.

Their case for the suggesting that nothing much has changed is based on their view that success in the system is one-dimensional: it is all about research outputs. The model for a successful university is Harvard (or maybe Oxbridge), and everyone is trying to the best of their ability to mimic the Harvard way, often inadequately. This, the authors suggest, is silly. Instead, they believe they can identify a coming taxonomy of higher education institutions, based on the idea that ‘distinctiveness matters’. There will be five university ‘models’: (1) the elite university; (2) the mass university; (3) the niche university; (4) the local university; and (5) the lifelong learning mechanism.

The essay does have a number of interesting insights, and is worth reading. But its five ‘models’ are not revolutionary – they (or something like them) are long in place, and it is not difficult to attach a model number to almost any existing university you might care to mention. The problem is that, as listed, they express a hierarchy, and indeed a hierarchy both of esteem and of resourcing. The trick in establishing a new higher education model that is not Harvard-like but is recognised as representing strong value and educational quality is to show it as exercising thought leadership. That is the essence of a different new university model.

Unlike the authors of this report, I don’t think there is an avalanche coming that is materially different from past changes, in the sense that fairly significant change has been a feature of higher education for the past four decades or more. I also suspect that some of the current ‘radical’ moves, including many of the MOOCs (a term that increasingly irritates me), will eventually flop because they lack a business case and because the pedagogy has not been as well thought out as some may think. But I do believe that there is scope for a radical new university model that can challenge the traditional elite. That is the quest I would like to be on.

Flowing into the city

March 6, 2013

The heart of the city of Aberdeen rests between two rivers, the Dee and the Don. What you see on this photo is the Bridge of Dee, which for a ling time provided main access route into the city from the south. There are now three additional bridges, but a good deal of traffic traffic is still taken across this rather narrow but attractive bridge.

Bridge of Dee, Aberdeen

Bridge of Dee, Aberdeen

In the background you can see parts of Aberdeen city, with its many spires, and some less attractive newer high rise buildings.

You may also notice a number of dark specks in the sky. This is not dust on the camera lens, but rather what you see are some of the thousands of birds that are a constant feature of this coastal city.

Making sense of research

March 5, 2013

Most (though not all) academic research is funded by the taxpayer. Depending on how ambitious this funding is, it allows universities to attract and retain some of the brightest thinkers and innovators. It also allows countries to present themselves as locations in which academic excellence can add significant value to industrial and commercial development. But are these two objectives easily compatible? Is research strengthened or devalued – or neither or both – by association with national economic objectives?

These issues have been in the news again, in both Scotland and Ireland, over the past week. In Ireland the government announced an investment of €200 million, to be spent on ‘seven world class research centres of scale’, in a new programme of funding managed by Science Foundation Ireland. The money will be made available to these centres, which consist of partnerships between a number of Irish universities and 156 companies; the latter will contribute a further €100 million. The funded research programmes will, according to the two government ministers at the launch, be ‘closely aligned to industry and enterprise needs, job opportunities and societal goals’. The significant amount of funding involved also indicates that this is where Ireland will focus taxpayer support for research.

Let us leave that for a moment and look at what hit the news in Scotland. There the Principal of St Andrews University , in a wide-ranging interview with the Times newspaper on the occasion of the university’s 600th anniversary, suggested that an independent Scotland might lose access to UK research council funding – a development she saw as potentially apocalyptic for her university’s scholarly activities: ‘We would lose our top academics, we would fail to attract serious academics [from other countries].’ And this is why: according to the Times, ‘she said that when small countries set up their own councils, research tended to be funded for political reasons rather than being based on pure excellence.’

The St Andrews Principal, Professor Louise Richardson (who comes from Co Waterford in Ireland), therefore obviously doesn’t think much of Ireland’s research landscape. Indeed she may fear that exactly what was announced in Ireland last week would be ‘catastrophic’ for universities like St Andrews if it materialised in Scotland.

Whether this kind of evaluation is right or wrong depends in part on what we think research is for, and despite the very long pedigree of academic scholarship, this is something on which we don’t really have any consensus. It is part of the narrative used by contemporary critics of higher education policy that the latter focuses too closely, or maybe at all, on economic and social goals. For some, research is about freeing the mind to go where it can, and to find whatever may be there. Some of that may be usable in a practical sense once discovered (and much of it is), but all of it will help to maintain intellectual curiosity and scholarly excellence. But for others, research is about ‘translation’ – about taking discovery and harnessing its impact for the benefit of society in a targeted way. Today’s world has concerns and needs in areas such as health, security, food and nutrition, transport, social transformation, cultural creativity and so forth, and when the taxpayer funds research it should yield targeted benefits in such areas. And Professor Richardson is right: politicians in smaller countries may want to focus more on the translational, ‘practical’ dimension of research.

The easy answer is to say that there must be room (and some money) for both outlooks. But that is probably too easy. While the principle of academic freedom, involving the right of researchers to pursue their own directions of scholarship and the protection of the integrity of their work, must continue to be at the heart of the academy and its relations with the rest of society, it is also reasonable to say that the taxpayer is entitled to seek that the funding they provide will address the urgent issues they face. Therefore the kind of research in priority areas funded by Science Foundation Ireland is a coherent response to such expectations, provided there are safeguards for the integrity of the programmes. And so Professor Richardson may be right in what she expects in an independent or more autonomous Scotland. But she may be wrong to regard it as something to be feared.