Archive for June 2013

Getting the correspondence right

June 25, 2013

I have just been reading the biography of William Gladstone (UK politician in the Victorian era) by Philip Magnus, and was astounded to learn that, when Prime Minister, he wrote some 25,000 letters each year. I had always considered myself to be a very prolific correspondent, but Gladstone’s efforts make my own annual average of some 7,000 emails and maybe 250 letter look distinctly pathetic. Furthermore, I cannot really claim that each of my emails will match any of the Liberal Prime Minister’s letters. Some of my communications are, shall we say, rather short: I am perfectly capable of sending a three-word email, of which two will consist of first names. Still, for me and many others email has become the dominant form of correspondence and exchange of views.

Email is probably used more widely in the academic world than anywhere else. It is how most communication is done, most argument conducted, most arrangements confirmed. Emails have not only taken over from letters, they have also often replaced telephone calls and face to face discussions. Furthermore, place a person in front of a computer keyboard with the email client on the screen, and that person can become a monster, handing out insults and abuse that he or she would never deliver orally: it is the digital equivalent of road rage.

Anyway, email as a form of communication with students has become increasingly useless, as younger people have migrated from emails to social networking and other integrated messaging systems. A recent effort by a lecturer in an American university to find out how many of his 145 students had read his most recent email bulletin revealed that a week after he had sent it fewer than a third had read it.

I am not suggesting that email is dead. Certainly I cannot promise that I will be sending fewer. But we must be aware of its limitations. It does not adequately replace all other forms of personal contact, and it is becoming increasingly ineffective as a form of written broadcast to groups of people. It needs to be one of a much larger menu of communications, designed to meet the needs of those being addressed and encouraging them to engage and respond. There is no reason not to include the hard copy letter amongst the media used.

And while you are thinking about this, go out of your office and talk to someone.

The meaning of university ‘autonomy’

June 18, 2013

Just over three years ago, towards the end of my term of office as President of Dublin City University, I took part in a meeting between university presidents and members of the ‘strategy group’ chaired by Dr Colin Hunt who were then working on a new strategy for Irish higher education (and whose report was published in 2011). One of the points of discussion was the desirability of university autonomy. All those present – presidents and members of the Hunt group – agreed that autonomy was vital for universities in a successful national system. But in the course of the conversation it became clear that there were rather different views about what ‘autonomy’ actually meant. In an exchange I had with a senior public servant on the strategy group it became clear that they saw autonomy not (as I suggested) as independence in formulating strategy, but rather as freedom to choose appropriate management methods to implement a government strategy.

In 2011 I moved to Scotland, and as readers of this blog will know I was appointed chair of a review of Scottish higher education governance. My panel issued its report in early 2012. One of our recommendations was that chairs of governing bodies should be elected by staff, students and other stakeholders. This recommendation, which we suspected would be controversial, has been vehemently resisted by governing body chairs and others within the universities, with one of the objections being that if implemented it would compromise university autonomy.

So is there in all this a properly developed view of autonomy? What does it mean? Does it mean, for example, that the state may take no interest of any kind in university governance? Does it mean, on the other hand, that the state can impose a strategic direction, merely allowing universities to choose methods of implementation? Presumably the truth lies somewhere in between these two rather different propositions. Autonomy cannot mean that society has no stake in universities and that its representatives should mind their own business; that would suggest a level of independence from anyone’s oversight that no other body in society, public or private, enjoys. On the other hand autonomy, if it is to mean anything, must include the right of a university to determine its own strategy, taking into account the public interest (which will usually be expressed in conditions of state funding).

Various definitions of university autonomy have been suggested. The European Universities Association, for example, has argued that it involves organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy – a definition that for me is too structural, and not strategic enough. Others have questioned whether university autonomy has come to be seen too much as managerial autonomy from staff influence.

Universities must, like all other bodies, show their responsiveness to the needs of the wider society, but must be left to make most of the judgements about how to reflect this themselves. In the meantime the state, as the guardian of the public interest, must be able to regulate some of the structures of governance, provided this does not include control over decision-making within the institutions. This was the position we were seeking to address in the governance review. I still think we found the right balance.

The hotel

June 16, 2013

A well known place in the centre of Aberdeen’s old Merchant Quarter is the Carmelite Hotel, a popular meeting place. It also has an unusual architectural shape, which you can see in the photograph below.

Carmelite Hotel

Carmelite Hotel

For readers who have never been here, Aberdeen is well worth a visit.

The meaning, importance and neglect of public health

June 14, 2013

Guest post by Janine Elizabeth Ewen, news writer for Politics First UK and specialist in international health research

The concept of public health in the 21st century addresses some of the world’s more serious structural health problems.  It concerns itself with a focussed examination of societal problems that are deep-rooted and need to be pulled to the surface for creative and effective interventions. However public health, if we look back on its history, was not always taken so seriously. It seems any method to improve health always faced significant barriers .

Public health is ultimately about all of humanity – how we live together, how we view our shared circumstances and infrastructure (air, water, soil, food, housing water etc.), how we handle some of the necessitates of life. It is a field that provides a rationale for both good and bad health conditions. According to Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, it is ‘the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals.’

Unfortunately public health is sometimes attacked as unnecessary or ‘nannying’, leaving it with reduced cultural visibility. While few could be against public health – the right to live in an acceptable state of health –  when compared to other health aspects it is often low on the list of priorities.

Is public health really a new concept? Or is it the case that it has never been considered at a strategic level, and that we have ignored the key circumstances of everyday lives that prevent individuals from living in conditions of overall good health?

I have great respect for David Hemenway, a US public health specialist working in the field of violence and firearms. Asking the question about the widespread ignorance of public health issues, he suggests it lacks profile because it sits alongside medicine, which has a far higher profile and much more funding. Clearly important medical treatment can be provided by doctors, nurses and other medical related healthcare professionals. Medicine is immediate and hugely effective, and people have engaged with it on a huge scale through acute observations/treatment in hospital and through GP practices. It is easy to identify with medicine, whereas public health is different. It doesn’t have such an immediate impact, and often it can be  unclear whether lives have been saved or improved as a result of public health initiatives.

Complex health policies and statistics can obscure the potential and impact of public health initiatives. However, this is also true of other policy fields such as economics and welfare, so there is no compelling reason why this would detract from interest in public health.

Bill Gates has observed that people generally demonstrate a caring attitude, but care involves discovering a passion and getting to the key underlying issues. This must involve research, stakeholder analysis and the formation of partnerships. In fact public health concepts are usually broad and easy to understand in their definition, but perhaps more complicated in practice, including the concepts of partnerships, community development, project management, and even health itself.

The invisibility of public health is not a recent phenomenon. In 1937 Richard Shyrock (1917-72), a UK historian of public health (they do exist), observed that ‘by the simple process of forgetting’ its past efforts, the public health movement had become irrelevant. He  expressed a concern that ‘indifference to the past’ might promote ‘complacency in the present’.

Another example of these problems was provided by Lemuel Shattuck, a Boston politician, historian and bookseller, whose plans for the promotion of public health in the city faced objections because they were seen as too complicated, too focused on statistics and too much tending to interfere with private matters and rights.

Health interventions produce moral and social dilemmas. The UK has also experienced these issues. The National Health Service came with a cost. It came into operation at midnight on 4 July 1948. It was the first time anywhere in the world that completely free healthcare was made available on the basis of citizenship rather than the payment of fees or insurance premiums. Despite the high value that has come to be associated with the NHS, it may have been that the issues of a growing dependency, little self-management and huge costs were not appreciated.

It is time for public health to be taken seriously, and for the issues to be proper;ly and widely considered; not just by healthcare professionals, but by all citizens.

Charting higher education’s future

June 11, 2013

If your particular interest is reports on the future of higher education, you will not be starved of material. All over the developed world in particular there have over recent years been numerous inquiries into higher education strategy. Some of these have been influential – perhaps the Review of Australian Higher Education (chaired by Denise Bradley) is a particular example; while others may have somewhat disappointing, such as Ireland’s National Strategy for Higher Education (the Hunt Report), which focused largely on organisation and structure.

The most recent offering in this genre is provided by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent think tank considered to be close to the political centre left. In 2012 the IPPR established a rather grandly named ‘Commission on the Future of Higher Education’, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick, Professor Nigel Thrift. Its terms of reference included an analysis of the purpose of higher education, the ‘mix of higher education institutions’, the role higher education can play in promoting ‘sustainable economic growth’, and higher education funding. The group decided to focus their analysis on England, recognising that other parts of the United Kingdom had gone rather different ways.

The commission has now issued its report (A Critical Path). Covering 156 pages, the document sets out a significant number of recommendations on a variety of issues. The members of the group have attempted to set these within the context of five overarching principles: (a) higher education institutions must be disinterested producers of knowledge; (b) higher education institutions must nurture sceptical and informed citizens; (c) higher education institutions must promote the public good; (d) higher education institutions must expand opportunity: and (e) higher education institutions must further national economic renewal.  Apart perhaps from some argument as to what the last of these principles might mean, all of these would probably be regarded by most members of the higher education community as self-evidently correct; they don’t rattle any cages or suggest any surprising departures. In other words, they don’t particularly serve as challenging questions for society or for the academy.

This in turn may deprive what is actually an interesting report of public awareness or excitement. Public reaction has been low key, even amongst higher education followers; there was for example hardly any Twitter discussion. Without perhaps much of a strategic steer, media interest zoomed in on just one (and somewhat peripheral) recommendation, the possible re-establishment of polytechnics in England.

So what are the real themes of the report? It is not easy to distil these from the large and varied number of recommendations, but some elements that do stand out are the commission’s concern to ensure that higher education participation is maintained and, over time, increased; that vocational education provision is developed within the system; that research and development continues to be funded on an ambitious scale; that access for the disadvantaged is promoted; that technology-enabled learning is grown; and that funding keeps the system in a sustainable state. None of these are bad or undesirable recommendations, but perhaps too many of them skirt around territory that could be described as obvious or not unexpected. They probably will not change general perceptions or expectations, and so may not influence strategic thinking unduly.

Most observers of higher education expect the coming era to be one of disruptive and challenging change. We know that technology will challenge pedagogical and organisational assumptions. We know that learners will lead different lives from those that my generation experienced. We know that old funding models will struggle to satisfy resourcing needs. We know that external stakeholders will want to harness the academy’s intellectual property in new ways. We know that tolerance for educational exclusion will diminish.

But we don’t know whether these trends and influences will overhaul and change a still coherent higher education system, or whether they will produce far more varied institutions, or what what any of these will look like. Higher education planning has already, I think, factored in most of the points made by the IPPR Commission; the current uncertainty is driven by opportunities, risks and challenges going somewhat beyond these.

Every contribution to the higher education debate is valuable, and this report is no exception. But it probably will not change the nature or tone of the debate.

Another university league table

June 3, 2013

Honestly, I have no idea what to say about this one. My university comes in at number 49. And what’s wrong with Salford (or maybe right)?