Archive for July 2013

Linguistic fog in the academy

July 30, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I had a telephone call from an old friend, who works for a voluntary organisation that is currently trying to enter into a partnership with a small group of universities. He had just come from a meeting with representatives of the institutions. ‘About half way through the meeting’, he told me, ‘I suddenly realised that the whole discussion was being conducted in a foreign language. They probably thought they were speaking English, but that’s not how it sounded to me. It seems that academics are unable to get through a single sentence that does not have at least one incomprehensible (and unexplained) acronym and one bit of jargon that no outsider can understand.’

He has a point. People who work with me in Robert Gordon University know that I stop the discussion the moment an acronym appears – and at first that meant I was stopping the discussion every minute or so. At least I can learn them, but for outsiders this is not so easy, not least because the acronyms are different in each institution.  It seems to be impossible for us to avoid acronyms for committee names, and for processes, programmes, strategies, plans, buildings, even people. And this alphabetical cocktail is then enriched with jargon that only insiders can understand. The result is a kind of mysterious incantation that sounds like some pagan ritual.

But this is wrong. The academy is not some obscure cult that seeks to protect its rites from non-believers. It needs to be able to engage with the wider community. So if you are an academic, drop all your acronyms, abbreviations and jargon. Go and make some sense. You know you can.

A MOOC reality check

July 22, 2013

Two weeks ago I asked some questions in this blog about the hype surrounding MOOCs (massive open online courses), and wondered whether these courses really were the game changer that some of their supporters claim they are. Now one of the major private providers of MOOCs, Udacity, has had to pause the development of its university partnership with San Jose State University. The pause has been described by the two organisations as ‘taking a breather’, and representatives of both the company and the university have stressed that the partnership is not being wound down.

However, what appears to have triggered the ‘breather’ are the somewhat low pass rates in the jointly run courses, some of them as low as 12 per cent, and apparently all under or well under 50 per cent.

In fact, the Udacity/San Jose partnership did not just run MOOCs as generally understood, but also credit-bearing courses using the MOOC technology. These were introduced to offer cheaper options to the university’s students.

The two partners are playing their cards somewhat close to their chests and are offering somewhat opaque reasons for the pause in activities. Indeed the vagueness of the explanations suggests that they are not quite sure themselves how to evaluate the experience to date, including the low pass rates. But there may already be a clue in there somewhere, because if any of these courses were being offered to save costs and therefore lower prices, this may suggest that some doubtful assumptions were being employed. There is no doubt that online learning offers huge opportunities, with the possibility of exciting pedagogy and interesting flexibility of provision. However, doing this well is not cheap, and does not offer the kind of major savings that some stakeholders appear to expect; which is another reason why the absence of a business model for MOOCs may be a serious issue.

Udacity and San Jose State University may well get this show back on the road. But I suspect there will be other ‘breathers’ across this whole scene; and that in turn may prompt a more realistic and mature debate about the true potential of online learning.

University College Dublin

July 17, 2013

And from Wales to Ireland: University College Dublin today announced its new President. From January 2014, UCD will be led by Professor Andrew J. Deeks, currently Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Durham University. Professor Deeks is an engineer, and as PVC has had responsibility for the Science Faculty in Durham. He will take over from Professor Hugh Brady, who is coming to the end of his 10-year term as President.

Given my blog post of earlier this week, it can be said that Andrew Deeks is coming to Ireland at a time when universities are under some pressure, both in terms of funding and in the context of the changing regulatory landscape. But there will also be opportunities ahead, and I wish him well.

Hugh Brady has been seen by some as a very controversial President, but it is undeniable that UCD grew hugely in stature and influence during his term of office. It will be interesting to see what he will do next.

Reforming higher education in Wales

July 17, 2013

For those (like me) who are not always aware of what is happening in the Welsh university system, there are some current developments worth noting. Yesterday the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, announced his legislative programme for the coming year. This includes plans for a Higher Education (Wales) Bill, which will have the following purpose:

The Higher Education (Wales) Bill will provide the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) with a robust regulatory framework within which to operate to ensure quality of higher education and provide assurance about the financial health and governance of higher education providers and the quality of their provision. It will also enforce fee controls and to safeguard equality of opportunity for those accessing or intending to access higher education.

This announcement follows the Welsh Government’s recent Policy Statement on Higher Education, published last month. This set out a number of objectives for the system, including more ambitious research goals, a greater focus on access, better integration between higher and further education, and a drive to ensure that innovation in higher education benefits economic growth.

It will be interesting to see how the proposed Bill addresses the regulatory backdrop to all this. There have already been considerable structural changes in Welsh higher education over recent years, and it seems that further change may lie ahead.

Irish higher education: mind the funding gap

July 16, 2013

Towards the end of my time as President of Dublin City University, I calculated that over my ten-year term of office the funding received for educating each Irish and EU undergraduate student (the unit of resource) had, after allowing for inflation, decreased by around 40 per cent. With the exception of the student registration charge (which had by then become the ‘student contribution charge’), all funding came from the government. The actual amounts of funding had increased over the period, but this was because of a mixture of inflation and significantly increased student numbers; once you adjusted for that the picture was very different. Even during the affluent Celtic Tiger years the funding in real terms declined significantly.

When the credit crunch and the resulting recession began in 2008, it became clear very quickly that major funding cuts were about to hit the system. Some of this was absorbed through reductions in staff pay, but what was much more significant was the reduction in staff numbers, forced on the system through the notorious ’employment control framework’. The continuing squeeze on budgets has in the meantime also led to other dramatic effects, with universities having to face impossible decisions regarding staffing, library and technology resources, and other such vital parts of the infrastructure.

Nobody doubts that recent Irish governments have had to take very difficult decisions, and it would have been unrealistic to suggest that higher education should (or could) escape that. But it must be remembered that Ireland’s ability to generate either inward investment or indigenous entrepreneurship increasingly depends on a successful university sector. This is now at risk. It would be foolish to think that a starved sector enjoying half of the per capita funding of other OECD countries could compete with them for investment or for skilled leaders.

The problem for Ireland is that very few people are making this point explicitly (although there are some exceptions, including Dick Ahlstrom’s recent piece in the Irish Times). Does anyone know, or say, how much funding a student must attract for that student to be able to receive a quality education? In England Oxford University suggested to the Browne review that it was £16,000. Perhaps more realistically, an American study recently argued that the minimum quality threshold lay at $15,000 per student – roughly €11,500. Ireland’s funding is now very far below that.

Ireland is facing a crisis on a number of fronts, but right now the asset stripping of higher education is creating an additional problem that may make an economic recovery both less likely and much less sustainable. And most alarming of all is that all this is happening with very little public noise, perhaps in part because the system has been distracted by a very doubtful new framework of restructuring. If I were still working in Ireland, I would be very afraid.

The MOOCs carnival

July 9, 2013

Every so often a fad grabs hold of higher education. Usually there is at its heart some genuine and interesting concept or development, but as the academic community or parts of it start to analyse the concept they become over-awed, and suddenly the hype takes over. A perfect example of this kind of mass hysteria is the noise generated by MOOCs.

A MOOC – ‘massive open online course’ – is a straightforward enough phenomenon, though you might ask what benefit its early supporters thought it might bring. It is a course put on the internet by a university or other institution, and which can be accessed for free by any number of  participants (or students). The level of staff-student interaction may vary, from none at all to intensive. The first serious experiment in this field was a UK publicly funded (or subsidised) venture called UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited), which also involved Sun Microsystems as a strategic partner. Its mission was to offer online courses designed by existing universities. It launched the first courses in 2003, but three years later it closed down, having been deemed a failure.

But this failure was a temporary blip, and by the end of the decade the term ‘MOOCs’ had been coined and providers were everywhere. Three major global providers emerged – Udacity, Coursera, and edX – and these (and others since) have offered an increasing variety of courses from partner universities and institutions. And before you knew it, the chatter about MOOCs was to be heard everywhere. The New York Times declared that 2012 was the ‘year of the MOOC’; various senior figures in the academy declared loudly that MOOCs were the future and that any institution that didn’t offer them would perish.

By 2013 some commentators have started to wonder whether the hype is all a bit too much, or whether MOOCs could undermine genuine academic activities and standards. Others have noted that it is not at all clear how MOOCs will ever make any money, or at least enough to cover their costs; even the co-founder of Coursera, Daphne Koller, couldn’t answer that question in a recent interview. However, the ‘MOOC or die’ theme still continues: the most recent prophet is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Professor Don Nutbeam, who has suggested that those who don’t embrace MOOCs will decline.

I must confess I am going to stand back from this crowd a little, and won’t be chasing the MOOC beliebers too actively. It’s not that I don’t believe in technology-enabled learning; I do. It’s not that I don’t want easier access to higher education; I do. It’s not that I think that spreading knowledge around freely is bad; it’s good. It’s not even that I would advise anyone not to try a MOOC; by all means do it, it’s free. But as for those people currently hyper-ventilating in the MOOC rock festivals, I would ask some questions, and chiefly this one: what are MOOCs actually for? What pedagogical, social or business objectives do they satisfy? Those who think that MOOCs are the answer to every question, including those not yet even formulated, are not terribly convincing on how the model can be made pedagogically and financially sustainable. Higher education at its most desirable is both expensive and highly interactive. It depends on a high quality personal experience. A mass market product that nobody is paying for or funding is not the most obvious answer to whatever problem you think we may currently have.

I am not suggesting that MOOCs are uninteresting. There’s something there all right, though my thanks will go to the person who finds a less irritating label for them than ‘MOOCs’. I am not suggesting that higher education in future will not involve much more online provision; I’m absolutely sure it will. But if we are to develop a model of provision that actually has clear objectives and a sustainable resourcing basis we have to approach this differently. Free online courses won’t make everyone educated any more than standing at street corners handing people envelopes with $50,000 will make everyone rich.

Right now, there is evidence that the MOOCs excitement is waning a little amongst potential users. This is a good time to reflect a little more about how we can innovate and develop in higher education, but without the hysteria.

University marketing: a good idea?

July 2, 2013

Every year  universities spend a fair amount of money – the precise sum will vary from year to year and from institution to institution – on marketing. Mostly this money is spent on advertising designed to attract students. Over recent years, many universities have advertised on radio or television, and on billboards or bus shelters. Some campaigns have been quite spectacular. If you consider the case for marketing from the institution’s perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense: the university has facilities and staff and needs to ensure that these are utilised in the best way possible through successful student recruitment.

It is possible, one might suppose, that some of this advertising encourages students to apply to a university where previously they had not thought of entering higher education. But then again, it is also possible that the effect of such marketing is to persuade students to favour one university over another; in other words, it is not about encouraging students to develop their intellectual maturity and their opportunities in higher education, it is about persuading them to go to a particular university.

It seems to me that marketing in a university is a necessary activity, not least because the idea of higher education needs to be kept in the public consciousness, but also because universities need to survive and prosper. Whether marketing should be seen as a competitive activity designed to gain a greater share of the same market for one particular institution could perhaps be debated. This may become a yet more acute question if, as is apparently the case in the United States, public money made available to for-profit private colleges is used to advertise their services to fee-paying students. But then again, it is not easy to see how marketing could be carried out that does not promote the specific qualities of the university and, by implication, its superiority over other institutions.

Some people in the academic community have argued that the whole concept of marketing in universities is a mistake, in particular because it often focuses on the non-academic attributes of an institution. One former admissions officer of a US university has recently described the development of marketing as follows:

‘There was a subtle move to encouraging as many applications as possible since that increased the selectivity profile (and hence, prestige and position in rankings) of the institution. There was a growing emphasis on promoting your school and that came to mean not only highlighting your academic programs but the comfort and amenities of dorm rooms, exceptional food, health-club-quality gym facilities, and endless extra-curricular activities that insure that students have fun. Colleges began producing slicker and slicker “viewbooks” that were magazines with limited text but lots of expensive photos taken by professional photographers featuring happy (usually preppy white kids with an occasional person of color who otherwise looked like everyone else). The subtext was “four happy years” at our place.’

But then again, universities are not just part of a larger public sector agency. Each individual institution needs to ensure it operates in a sustainable way, and that it generates the resources it needs to maintain and grow quality programmes. Marketing is a necessary component of that. And if you do marketing, it is entirely right to do it professionally. Furthermore, nowadays it is widely accepted that the education experience extends beyond the classroom. Nostalgia for some alleged era in which pedagogy trumped all else is, like most nostalgia, not terribly useful. But having a debate on marketing may help to ensure that its use is appropriate, and ethical. Such a debate is always worth having.