Archive for September 2013

A little bit of Scotland

September 29, 2013

Although I have now been in the North-East of Scotland for well over two years, I am still on a journey of discovery. Today a friend took us to see some fishing villages on the coast between Elgin and Fraserburgh. This stretch of coastline includes the location for the 1980s movie Local Hero, Pennan. But the place I found most wonderful of all was the the tiny village of Crovie – a gem that has been left largely untouched by modern development, although what were once fishermen’s cottages are now largely holiday homes, though beautifully maintained.


For readers of this blog who do not know Scotland’s North-East, it is well worth a visit.

Small is ugly?

September 26, 2013

The notion that large universities are better, or at least more sustainable, is remarkably durable. It has been at the heart of the debate on Irish higher education reform, and has now been called into action by the Director-Gebneral of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Speaking at a fringe meeting at the UK Labour Party conference, Mr John Cridland suggested that ‘smaller UK universities at the margins may risk closure.’ According to the Guardian newspaper (which organised the event), he added:

‘We are probably going to move into a period of consolidation – there are too many universities for our capacity to cope with them being separate.’

As we know, this is not a unique view, but it manages to stay in circulation without the burden of too much evidence in its support. The university rated the world’s number one in the Times Higher global rankings, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), is also a rather small institution, with fewer than 3,000 students; it most certainly is neither ‘at the margins’ nor at risk of closing. By way of contrast, some of the largest universities in terms of student numbers are quite low in the league tables.

The sustainability of a university has very little to do with size. It is however connected with quality, clarity of mission, robustness and adequacy of resources, and an ability to engage strongly with students and other stakeholders. It is of course right, as Mr Cridland also suggested, that universities collaborate and engage with each other, but this is so regardless of size.

The debate about the future of higher education is an important one. It should not however be obscured by the introduction of arguments that have no real evidence base.

Subverting Irish university autonomy

September 24, 2013

Over the past three or four years a significant change has been taking place in Irish higher education. Since the publication of the Hunt Report in 2011 (National Strategy for Higher Education), there has been a visible shift of public policy in the direction of a more centralised management of the system. The state now regards it as appropriate to set a national strategic purpose to be reflected in individual institutional plans, and also to manage what has become known as the higher education ‘landscape‘ – the latter being the configuration of the sector and the identity and management of the individual universities and colleges within it.

And now, with remarkably little public attention regarding the implications, the government has announced its intention of introducing in 2014 a new piece of legislation in the form of a Universities (Amendment) Bill, the purpose of which is declared to be ‘to give the Minister the power to require universities to comply with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector’.

The picture that is emerging from all this is an interesting one: the government and its agencies will set an overall strategic context for individual institutions, will determine in which institutional configuration they will operate, and will determine centrally their staffing and human resources policy. Someone may have arguments in favour of such a higher education policy, but it will have to be stated clearly that it is completely incompatible with any – even limited – understanding of university autonomy.

No major policy shift should be undertaken in any area without a clear understanding of how it will produce benefits; such an understanding does not exist in relation to current plans for Irish higher education. It is acknowledged throughout the world that autonomous universities perform much better and produce much greater benefits for their host countries. Ireland’s universities are now being directly threatened. There should, at the very least, be a vigorous debate, and the universities should be vocal in it.

Commanding knowledge

September 17, 2013

There is a very funny moment in one of the shows by Ali G (a.k.a. the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) where he interviews an American military officer. He asks him whether he has met General Schwarzkopf, or General Colin Powell – and in each case the officer affirms that he has. Ali G then wants to know whether he has met General Motors, at which point the officer doesn’t know how to respond and is obviously desperately trying to work out whether this is a prank or whether he has simply stumbled upon an imbecile. Well, perhaps Ali G could ask on a future occasion whether his target had met General Knowledge. The truthful answer would probably have had to be that, no, he had not.

In my job I am surrounded by people of all ages who are extraordinarily intelligent and are often either working on or studying something at the very cutting edge of knowledge. But when it comes to declaring whether Baku is in Mongolia or Azerbaijan they have no idea; and when someone asks them to calculate 6 times 8, they take out a calculator.

It is possible that a product of specialisation is increasing unfamiliarity with anything outside of the chosen specialism. Or maybe it is just that general knowledge no longer has a platform except maybe on reality TV; but no matter how often you watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it will never fill the gap.

I think it is important that we educate and train people so that they will have the specific skills they need, but it is also vital that young people in particular acquire a working knowledge more generally of the world in which they live and in which they will want to be active. Surveys (such as this one) regularly reveal some really broad gaps in popular knowledge; but rather than throw up our arms in mock despair, we should look at how we educate people and what materials we give them in order to improve their general knowledge. When I was a young boy there were plenty of supports, from magazines like Look and Learn (which probably now sounds impossibly nerdy) to the whole series ofLadybird books. There is no real modern equivalent of such didactic materials, and where today entertainment does focus on general knowledge it treats it like a lottery proposition: your knowing the answer to some question is the occurrence of a statistical near-impossibility and thus entertaining.

I don’t really know what the answer is to my complaint, but I am firmly of the view that we must try to recover some of that general knowledge and make it common property again. That way we can laugh at Ali G because we actually know why it’s funny.


The elitism challenge

September 9, 2013

It is probably true to say that my generation was the last to experience higher education as something clearly elitist. I was in a cohort that probably contained not much more than 5 per cent of my age group. All of us were destined for relative prosperity and good fortune.

But soon after we had passed through the system and into our lucrative careers, society’s assumptions changed. What followed was what is sometimes described as the ‘massification‘ of higher education, with an increasing proportion of the population going to universities and colleges. In some countries, including Ireland, this proportion has exceeded 50 per cent. So what was once social elitism, with students typically coming from families with a tradition of higher education as well as other social advantages, now became intellectual elitism, in which an ever larger proportion of people were invited to participate in the experience of high value learning and scholarship.

But massification has created various problems. Some people have questioned the value of higher education as something that most people could expect to experience; partly because the high participation rates were said to be putting traditional professions and skills at risk where these did not require a university degree, and partly because the tsunami of degree courses developed in recent decades contained some or more not considered to be intellectually rigorous. The degree course offered in the 1990s by Thames Valley University in kite flying was often presented as an illustration of this decline in academic value.

The response to massification has not necessarily always been to argue there should be fewer university students. There has also been a tendency to suggest that the concentration of resources on a small number of elite universities would allow these to preserve traditional high value academic programmes; other less well resourced universities would then run courses for large numbers of those not quite gifted enough to enter the elite. In this way massification could remain, but re-ordered into streams for the very good and for the less good or maybe less fortunate. The latter is an important qualification, because once you have an elite set of institutions the capacity of the wealthy to buy up educational resources from an early age would almost inevitably create as much a social claim on this elite as an intellectual one.

This is not the way to go. It is wrong because it is elitist in the wrong (bad) sense; because it would quickly compromise upward social mobility; because traditional higher education is not necessarily more valuable to society than more innovative versions; because it would almost certainly produce an education system much less rooted in the communities it is supposed to serve. It may well be that higher education can become saturated, admitting more students than is good for society; an analysis of this would not be misplaced. But if there are to be adjustments, these should not compromise the understanding that all members of society, where they have the intellectual capacity, should have an equal claim on university membership, or that courses and research programmes should be supported and funded on the basis of excellence rather than on the traditions and political pull of their host institutions. Any form of concentration of resources on elite institutions undermines all of these objectives and leaves society less well off.

De-Babeling the tower?

September 3, 2013

About five years ago I was on a university trip to China. In the course of the visit I had dinner with an elderly retired Chinese sociology professor, and in the course of the dinner he suggested to me that, within the lifetime of one generation, the main urban spoken language of China would be English. He pointed out that young people were emailing and texting and saying stuff on social networking sites in English, partly driven by the greater ease of writing in English on mobile phones. As it happens on the same trip I was a guest at a Chinese university student show performed entirely in English, with one of the students (who had never been outside China) telling me he had now read every one of the novels of Charles Dickens in the original language. How many UK students would be able to say that?

The fate of languages in an era in which international and intercultural communication is so easy is a subject of potentially interesting debate. As English strengthens its grip on speech and language everywhere, the effects are felt in the academy. In Scotland right now the number of students taking French in secondary schools for their Highers (equivalent of ‘A’ levels or the Leaving Certificate or SATS in the US) is dropping by nearly 10 per cent year on year, and German has become an endangered subject in UK universities. Minority languages are finding it particularly hard to retain a foothold anywhere.

Does this matter? Is it in fact the emergence of much greater international linguistic fellowship in which communication is becoming easier? Or are we losing cultural anchors that could disrupt and impoverish society? Or will languages actually stage a come-back?

The onward march of English is probably unstoppable, and perhaps the vehicle for linguistic cultural expression will in future be a rich regional variety of accents and dialects – which has long been a feature of English in the Celtic nations on these islands. But in the end it would be a pity of the indigenous languages that are often the source of these local enrichments were to be lost as living means of communication, and indeed not least as a means of communicating tradition and culture. How all this should be handled is something universities should address; and to that extent they should not lightly abandon the study of languages, or of any particular languages.