Archive for December 2013

Happy Christmas!

December 24, 2013

May I wish all readers of this blog a happy, relaxed and satisfying Christmas. As I write this, storms are battering where I am staying for Christmas, in the Irish Midlands. I hope that this will pass (here and elsewhere) without causing excessive damage or distress. So may this holiday season be everything you wanted it to be. And many thanks for stopping by here, today and on other days.

Maybe it may also be of interest that, if you are celebrating Christmas, you are doing something that was illegal for a number of years in some countries. Christmas was banned by Cromwell’s government in 1647, and observing it (even privately) was prohibited until 1650. The American Puritans took a dim view of it also. As a holiday it only became popular after Prince Albert (after whom the building where I worked for some years in DCU was named) introduced his inherited German customs to England in the mid-19th century, and when US popular culture (from Coca Cola to Disney) introduced the ‘modern’ Santa Claus to the world (‘Santa’ being of course a re-branded Saint Nicholas of Myra).

A very happy Christmas to you all!

City pavements

December 20, 2013

I haven’t posted any photographs for a while, so here are two that showing one of my favourite photographic themes: paved streets. Both were taken in September of this year.

The first photo is of Correction Wynd in Aberdeen, just as it crosses under Union Street.

Correction Wynd

Correction Wynd

The second is in Temple Bar, Dublin.

Temple Bar

Temple Bar


Irish universities and salary top-ups

December 18, 2013

Topping up the salaries of senior executives is not in vogue right now, as is well known. In the Celtic Tiger years in Ireland, however, it was not unusual, and universities were not particularly exceptions. According to figures now released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Ireland’s seven universities spent a total of €7.2 million on unauthorised top-ups between 2005 and 2011, and the Authority has now declared that it is withholding half of this amount, albeit on a phased basis, from the institutional grants until that sum has been repaid. The other half will have to be spent by the universities on student services.

The university most affected by this will be University College Dublin, which will have €1.6 million withheld; the one least affected is my former university, Dublin City University, with €27,000 being withheld (and in this case, as it covers a period during which I was President, I might add that the sum in question had been authorised by the HEA, but never mind).

I might say right away that I am totally opposed to salary top-ups; these fail all kinds of tests, including obvious transparency and fairness tests. I did not allow any such payments in DCU (the small top-up mentioned above was decided and authorised before my time as President). However, one might still question what is being done by the HEA. First, I am of the view that payments and salaries in universities should be controlled by their governing bodies, not by the government. Secondly, even if top-ups are wrong (as I think they are), withholding a sum of money as ‘punishment’ is an entirely counter-productive response. The first time, when the top-ups were paid, the money in question was in essence removed from the funds available to resource teaching and student support; now the HEA is removing these sums (or half of them) for a second time from students by withholding them from institutional grants; that makes no sense to me.

As the government itself believes, top-up payments are no longer made anywhere in the Irish university system. That is really a good bit of progress. Punishing current students for excessive payments made to senior staff in the past is much more doubtful. What the story does tell us, however, is that universities need to be open and transparent in how they pay staff, and senior staff in particular.

Separating values?

December 17, 2013

There are times when, I suspect, we all regret initiating some discussion or other which goes off in an unexpected direction and causes us grief. This, I imagine, is how Universities UK (of which all British universities are members) feel about the advice they recently offered on gender segregation at meetings on university premises. This was contained in a larger document which was about handling external speakers. The document contained a case study, based on a hypothetical event at which the speakers are debating different approaches to religion, where one of the speakers has ‘made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender’. The Universities UK document then set out the legal and practical issues, focusing both on freedom of speech and religious rights, and concluded:

‘It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of [statutory duties], as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.’

While it might be suggested that this conclusion was somewhat opaque, it appeared to offer the advice that, in such circumstances, providing for gender-segregated audiences might be within the law, or indeed might be required by law.

Most documents issued by university umbrella bodies do not attract much public attention, but this one was an exception. A firestorm broke out, with newspapers and other media severely criticising Universities UK, and with student protests outside their offices. There were also reports alleging that segregated meetings has taken place on university campuses. The British Prime Minister also weighed in and, according to a news agency report, indicated that arranging gender-segregated audiences was not acceptable in the UK. A similar view was expressed by the Labour Party’s Shadow Business Secretary.

In the face of this onslaught, Universities UK decided to withdraw its advice pending a review of the issue with the help of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and senior lawyers.

So what are we to make of all this? More particularly, how should universities handle the complexities of multi-cultural concerns? Gender equality is one of the most basic requirements of a modern liberal society; so can this be legitimately qualified if a particular religious group rejects it and insists on its right to treat men and women differently? Would we accept it if this religious group were a Christian church?

Not everyone has backed the criticism of the Universities UK document. Writing on the website Huffington Post, the journalist Alastair Sloan suggested:

‘It is not acceptable to demand that a group of consenting adults cannot organise themselves by gender, if they see fit. It is of no business to feminists to be threatening to break up Islamic meetings – unless they are happy to be labelled religious persecutors.’

It is of course clear that universities must be open to and welcome and support people from many different cultures and countries. So for example, universities need to get better at recognising that a bars-and-alcohol leisure culture will seem hostile to many coming here from overseas, and that alternatives should be available. But equally it seems right that universities should protect liberal values of equal rights and opportunities, and that compromises around these values are wrong. The idea of ‘separate but equal’, which in theory underpinned apartheid (in practice there was little equality), has been wholly rejected, and should not be allowed to make a come-back in the context of gender. In many ways, it is reassuring that this was the strong near-consensus reaction to the Universities UK document.

I have a lot of sympathy for Universities UK in all this, as their intention was simply to offer dispassionate legal advice; but sometimes the strict legal position is not helpful. This was one of those times.

Universities and social aspirations

December 10, 2013

Why do young people go to one university rather than another? And when they go there, how does it change them? If two people with the same attainment and the same interests proceed to higher education, and one of them goes to, say, Oxford, and the other to London Metropolitan University, will they exit from the system still the same? And if not, what determines the difference?

These questions are important because the outcomes of higher education are not just educational, they are clearly also social. People network at university, and the groups they associate with will often determine the further course of their lives and careers. Therefore it matters not just whether they meet people with the same intellectual and professional interests and intentions, but also what kind of socio-economic associations they form or are confirmed in.

Recently a student newspaper in Duke University, the prominent private research-intensive university based in Durham, North Carolina, ran a piece describing the impact that the university has had on one of its students. It quotes the student as saying that ‘he can no longer relate to any of his friends from high school’, all of whom, we learn, have unlike him gone to local state institutions. He still tries to socialise with them when he returns home, but conversation has become difficult because their experience is different from his. ‘I think it’s just really hard for me’, he muses, ‘ to relate to people who, you know, couldn’t get into a [university] like mine’.

OK, so what is that difference, then? Is it the more intellectual discourse available at the resource-rich Duke University? Is it based on the quality of the faculty and the richness of the pedagogy? Apparently not. Rather, in Duke his conversations with his classy college friends tend to revolve around ‘discussions of greek rankings, sharing of sexual conquests and wordless exchanges of loud bodily functions.’

What we are therefore left with is what we probably already knew: that there is a higher education apartheid based around social standing, which merges with claimed intellectual superiority backed by more generous funding. And these are the continuing building blocks of professional and social elites, and ultimately social exclusion.

Almost everybody these days supports and welcomes higher education diversity, but often there is a subtext about social hierarchies. We will never be in a system in which all institutions are equal, nor should we want to be. But we should look again at how diversity is often just a facilitator for social ambition, in which some institutions are prized and others are avoided by those wanting to get to the top of the tree. It is time for the system to say goodbye to all that, and goodbye to the assumption that institutional age delivers a more excellent intellectual performance, and goodbye to the belief that it is OK to pursue social ambition through one’s choice of higher education institution. It is time to say a genuine hello to real diversity, of different approaches but equal ambition and equal opportunities for world class leadership.

Re-thinking group mission

December 3, 2013

One of the features, over the past decade or more, of the British university system has been the so-called ‘mission groups’. These have included the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, the University AllianceMillion+Guild HE. All in all, these groups do not have a major presence in Scotland, though some Scottish universities are members of one or the other of them. However, mostly the mission groups are so totally focused on England that any Scottish membership is not much affected. In Ireland, leaving aside for a moment the membership by University College Dublin of the international group Universitas 21, mission groups have not been a feature. In Northern Ireland Queen’s University Belfast was allowed to join the Russell Group a few years ago, though its performance particularly in research might have raised questions about its suitability for inclusion in that particular collection.

Be all that as it may, the scene may be experiencing some significant change, even in England. In recent years some of the members of the 1994 Group, which had set itself up as an umbrella group for small research-intensive universities, jumped ship and joined the Russell Group, which is the self-declared representative of ‘leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.’ Increasingly asset stripped by its larger rival grouping, the 1994 Group has now decided to close shop.

This could be seen as a victory for the Russell Group. But the latter has now become so large and diverse that some are wondering whether it will start developing smaller sub-groups and eventually break up. But maybe a more fundamental question should be asked: should such groups exist at all? In a system that should celebrate diversity and, where appropriate, competition, mission groups sometimes look like defensive cartels that seek special advantages for their members. Of course universities should collaborate, but whether such collaboration is better or more appropriate through exclusive clubs is open to question.

Thankfully, my university (Robert Gordon University) is not affiliated to any mission group. And that’s how it will stay. In this way we will drive forward with purpose and ambition; and any university is welcome to work with us.