Archive for January 2014

Sean Flynn RIP

January 30, 2014

The Education Editor of the Irish Times, Sean Flynn, has sadly died after a long and serious illness that he faced with great courage and good humour. Some months ago it looked as if he might be in recovery, but unfortunately it returned and he lost the battle.

I worked closely with Sean since 2000, the year I became President of Dublin City University. Sean was very ambitious for the Irish Times, and wanted it to be not just the newspaper that reported the education news, but also the forum that conveyed something of the mood of the sector, and the opinions of those within it and of those who received en education from it. Because he was very widely trusted, he was able to get detailed reports and inside information, with the result that he often knew more about a particular development than those actually involved in it. His information was unerringly accurate.

He was also an entirely honourable man – he never betrayed a confidence or used information he had received off the record.

I shall miss Sean, and I hope that Elaine and his children will gather some comfort from the statements of many of those who came to respect Sean and enjoy his company and benefit from his insight.

University assets

January 28, 2014

Here’s an interesting news item from Bloomberg. American university endowments are faring well again as investments are once more producing much better returns. That’s not what I am drawing attention to, however. The article also tells us that the 835 institutions surveyed between them hold $448.6 billion of assets. This means that the average US university has reserves of some $537 million. Wrapped up in that is Harvard’s mouth-watering  $32.7 billion, a sum that would allow it to bail out Greece if it wished.

We should not however sit around in amazement, those of us in other countries need to do something to build up viable reserves. University endowments are not about creating luxury in higher education, they are about creating an ability to invest in real excellence, and also to provide proper supports for students who not so well off. US graduates have long accepted that supporting their university is one of the things that you do, and this acceptance allowed American universities to become truly world-beating. We need to develop the same habits. We need to create the kind of reserves that allow universities to secure their future and to avoid that constant knife-edge budgeting that afflicts most universities across the world. We need our universities to be really excellent and to invest in the future of all parts of society.

Do we recognise good teaching in our universities?

January 28, 2014

It is some 35 years ago that I first entered a room to teach students. That was in Cambridge, and I was doing a PhD and earning a little extra income by doing some teaching in my field. I hope the students got something from it, but I sometimes wonder – I was very inexperienced at the time, and like most new teachers very nervous. Two years later I became a lecturer in the School of Business Studies of Trinity College Dublin, and by that time I had become more confident and was very enthusiastic; and there followed a 20-year career teaching some 4,000 students, many of whom I will meet occasionally, some now in very senior positions.

I always enjoyed teaching, and particularly liked participative classes in which I would learn a lot from some very bright students. I didn’t like examining so much, not least because you could not help being aware of the effect on young people’s lives and careers of the results. But when in 2000 I had to give up regular teaching on taking up the post of President of Dublin City University, I did feel significant regret that this part of my life would be missing; and now in RGU I wonder from time to time whether I should give a little of my time to getting back into a classroom.

In 2000 I had been a Professor for ten years. It is a rank I was able to get almost entirely on the strength of my research. If teaching played a role in it, I was and am unaware of it. And as many academics know, that’s how the academic promotion system in almost all universities works. That is not always a bad thing, because academic life is about scholarship and research output demonstrates scholarly achievement. However, the traditional key core mission of a university is to teach, and if we want people to perform this vital task well we need to show recognition of excellence in this field – and on the whole we don’t. Universities go through occasional soul searching about whether they could do more to reward good teachers, including those who do not have an eye-catching research output. But mostly the ideas they come up with don’t produce that result. Annual teaching awards – which many universities have and which are of course fine – are not enough.

One of the aims I have had for some time is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and to be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research. We must do this not least because we cannot really persuade students that they matter unless we can show them that what we do for them counts when we take important decisions on staffing. We need to get better at this. 


January 26, 2014

In Scotland I live within sight of a monument called the Prop of Ythsie (pronounced ‘Icy’, with perhaps a hint of ‘th’ between the ‘I’ and ‘c’). It is part of the Haddo Estate, owned by Lord Aberdeen, and the Estate’s website describes it as follows:

‘It was built by the tenantry of Haddo in memory of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, paying tribute to the extensive improvement works he carried out on the Estate for the local residents.’

The 4th Earl was a very significant historical figure; he was the British Prime Minister between 1852 and 1855, presiding over a cabinet with some extraordinary personalities. It included the later Prime Minister William Gladstone, who regarded Lord Aberdeen as a mentor and close friend.

Having long been interested in Victorian British politics (and literature), it rather tickles me that I can see the monument from my house. You can see it below, in a photo I took a week or so ago. It is already on a hill, but if you climb to the top of the monument (which you can) you get the most spectacular views of Aberdeenshire, including some of the Cairngorms.


For those who might be interested, the place where I live (Ythsie) is just outside the beautifully designed (and preserved) village of Tarves (or Tarbhais, its original Gaelic name). Also in the neighbourhood are the remains of Tolquhon Castle, and the South Ythsie stone circle. It is an area full of history, and of some great beauty.

No sex for the President

January 24, 2014

With apologies for the salacious title of this post.

When you and I were students, and when we were staying in some student residence or other, some of us (if we’re old enough) may have been subject to a regulation that prohibited the overnight stay in our rooms of a guest of the opposite sex (our gay friends, curiously, were less restricted). Well, you probably thought that this kind of rule has long been abandoned or that it certainly has become unenforceable. Think again. And don’t think students. Think university presidents.

The new President of the University of Alabama in the United States, Dr Gwendolyn Boyd, has the use of a presidential residence that comes with the job. But her contract contains the following stipulation:

‘For so long as Dr. Boyd is president and a single person, she shall not be allowed to cohabitate in the president’s residence with any person with whom she has a romantic relation.’

Well no, there is no such word as ‘cohabitate’, but we’ll let that pass for a moment. What we see here is a rule prohibiting a woman president from having romantic liaisons at home. She may have all sorts of other visitors, including family, and if she acquires one, a husband; but not someone about whom she has pre-nuptial romantic feelings. Leaving aside the extraordinary assault on her human rights, how on earth can a university impose such conditions (notwithstanding her own apparent tolerance of them) in this day and age? And how can they possibly believe they are legally entitled to do this? And aren’t they at all worried that they will be mocked for this? Whatever next?

Creating ‘Technological Universities’ in Ireland

January 22, 2014

The Irish government has published the Technological Universities Bill 2014, and with it proposes to re-cast the Irish higher education sector. This is part of a new framework which was heralded in the Hunt Report in 2011 (the National Strategy for Higher Education) and which has been confirmed as government policy subsequently. Under this policy it was suggested that where two or more current Institutes of Technology merge, and where they satisfy certain criteria, they could become ‘technological universities’; the suggestion in the Hunt Report being that this is an established international type of university.

The legal instrument to give effect to all this is to be the new Bill, which is described as follows in the explanatory note accompanying it:

‘The Long Title of the Bill provides that the purpose of this legislation is to provide for the merger of Dublin Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Tallaght and Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown to form the new Dublin Institute of Technology and to provide for other institutes of technology to merge. The purpose of the Bill is also to provide for the establishment of a technological university and for the designation of institutes of technology merged under the Act as technological universities.’

As this note suggests, the Bill puts the cart some distance before the horse, because it first provides for the merger of three existing Institutes of Technology in the Dublin area, under the name of the largest of these, Dublin Institute of Technology. It then sets out terms under which other clusters of Institutes may be merged. The fact that DIT is given a special chapter in the Bill tells us that this particular merger has already been finalised and will proceed.

The Bill then sets out thee process and criteria for the establishment of a merged set of Institutes (for which the new DIT automatically qualifies) as a ‘Technological University’, subject to certain conditions. These conditions will be specified by the Minister for Education by order, but under section 28 must take account of the following:

(a) the provision of programmes at all levels of higher education with particular reference to the National Framework of Qualifications, and the breadth and orientation of those programmes to reflect the skills needs in the labour force,
(b) the profile of learners at the time of application to include; (i) a minimum of 4% of full time equivalent student enrolments in honours degree programmes or above to be enrolled in postgraduate programmes; (ii) a combined minimum of 30% of all enrolments to be in flexible learning programmes; professional or industry based programmes; or mature learners;
(c) the provision of high quality research and innovation activities with direct social and economic impacts for the region of location of the institution, with the capacity to support programmes and doctoral training in a minimum of three fields of knowledge/study at the time of application;
(d) evidence of a high level of engagement of the institute with business, enterprise, the professions and other related stakeholders in the region within which the institute operates,
(e) the profile of the staff of the institute, with particular reference to the qualifications of the teaching staff to include a minimum of 90% of full time academic staff to hold a postgraduate qualification with a minimum of 45% of full time academic staff to hold a doctoral qualification or terminal degree appropriate to their profession at the time of application,
(f) the quality of educational provision of the institute, with particular reference to quality assurance procedures, curriculum development informed by the needs of enterprise, and programme development,
(g) the current and planned activities of the institute to enhance its internationalisation relating to teaching, research, staff and student mobility and collaboration, and
(h) a high standard in the overall management and governance of the institute concerned, including the establishment of properly integrated and effective academic governance structures sufficient to enable the institute to deliver the objects and functions of a technological university …

The Bill then sets out the process to be followed in the case of any application to become a Technological University, which will involve in particular the setting up of an advisory panel. If this panel recommends the establishment, the Minister may then proceed with the appropriate order. There are also provisions for the expansion of Technological Universities through the inclusion of other third level institutions.

Section 50 of the Bill then sets out the proposed ‘objects’ of a Technological University, as follows:

(a) to provide and maintain a teaching and learning environment of excellent quality offering higher education at an international standard;
(b) to provide for the broad education, intellectual and personal development of students, equip graduates to excel in their chosen careers and enable them to contribute responsibly to social, civic and economic life in innovative and adaptable ways.
(c) to achieve academic excellence in research and support the exploitation of intellectual property and technology and knowledge transfer.
(d) to support entrepreneurship, enterprise development and innovation.
(e) to support the development of a skilled workforce.
(f) to promote inward and outward mobility of staff and students between the Technological University, business, industry, the professions and the wider community.
(g) to serve their communities and the public interest by- (i) supporting the delivery of local, regional and national economic objectives and making a measurable impact upon local, regional and national economic development, businesses and enterprises; (ii) fostering close and effective relationships with local, regional, national and international stakeholders, including relevant local authorities and regional assemblies, and enterprise partners. (iii) enriching cultural and community life; 82 (iv) promoting critical and free enquiry, informed intellectual discourse and public debate within the Technological University and in the wider society; (v) promoting an entrepreneurial ethos;
(h) to provide accessible and flexible learning pathways for students from a diverse range of backgrounds and to provide programmes and services in a way that reflects principles of equity and social justice and promotes access for all citizens in their region;
(i) to confer degrees and other qualifications;
(j) to utilise or exploit its expertise and resources, whether commercially or otherwise
(k) to provide directly, or in collaboration with other institutions of education, facilities for university education, including technological and professional education, and for research.
(l) to develop international collaborations and partnerships.

There will no doubt be considerable interest in this legislation, which will change fundamentally the Irish higher education system. The new framework is essentially the result of political lobbying by certain institutes which have argued that, for reasons relating to their achievements but also relating to local economic development needs, they should be given university status. Previous assessments of such cases on traditional criteria for university status have failed. This new framework is based on the rather questionable assertion in Hunt that there is an established concept of a ‘technological university’, and that this can use different criteria from those that apply to existing universities.

It is also based on the interesting understanding that a cluster of institutes, none of which individually could make a successful claim for university status, should be more eligible as a group; an understanding that could fairly easily be challenged. As I have argued elsewhere, if, say, Waterford Institute of Technology is not eligible to be a university, the case does not become more convincing because you have added Carlow Institute, which by every yardstick is a much weaker institution.

However, in the end this new framework will be driven by political rather than academic considerations. What impact this will have on the university system and its global reputation remains to be seen. It should perhaps be said that there is a good case for considering some institutes for university status; but whether this is the best way of looking at this is, at least in my view, highly questionable.

Competency-based education?

January 21, 2014

It would be nice to think that students entering a university – and their parents, teachers and counsellors – followed this route in order to broaden their minds, acquire knowledge and skills, and equip themselves to succeed in life. In reality many, perhaps most, go in order to acquire a ‘degree’, the currency of education that can be exchanged in return for employment or a career, and maybe other benefits. The degree certificate is the university’s statement of support for the student, and promises that the owner has met strict criteria of capability and performance.

Anyway, that is the theory. The question is whether the university’s certification matches the expectations that those relying on it may have. There is, I would at least argue, little doubt that higher education graduates continue on the whole to impress those who employ them or work with them. But there are also growing concerns that the currency has flaws. Talk about higher education grade inflation has created questions over whether the degree is a robust statement of achievement and ability. The exponential growth of higher education options, with a bewildering array of courses from a fast growing number of institutions, has made it more difficult for those relying on a person’s degree performance to know what exactly that means in comparative terms. Some employers are now suggesting that, whatever about the specific skills a degree course is intended to confer on a student, people seem often to graduate without really basic abilities in things like literacy and numeracy. New courses, including MOOCs, are offering learning without certification. Does all this raise reasonable doubts about the reliability of the university degree? And if it does, what’s the answer?

The response by some to these points is to conclude that the university ‘degree’ has had its day. The well known American political scientist Charles Murray has suggested the following in his 2009 book Real Education:

‘The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know and are able to do, not where they learned it or how long it took them to learn it.’

Of course the degree programme does more than provide end-of-course certification: it also establishes a programme structure, under which the student progresses through a syllabus and a timeline. Some current experiments are, at least partly, doing away with all that, prompted also by the different expectations and aspirations of some of today’s learners, many of whom are not school-leavers with three or four years to spare for full-time education. So what is emerging is sometimes called ‘competency-based learning’. This has been defined by the US Department of Education as follows:

‘Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded, and provide students with personalized learning opportunities. These strategies include online and blended learning, dual enrollment and early college high schools, project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery, among others. This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.’

What this looks like, at one level, is a return to education as a process that is measured in terms of learning that has been mastered rather than formal certification that has been awarded. At another level however this could be learning reduced to training only, with no easy place for general, theoretical, inquiry-led scholarship, particularly in higher education. But the time has come to ask far more searching questions about what we want our courses to achieve, and how the goals can best be delivered. We need to have a conversation in the academy about how we can secure genuine scholarly integrity while also giving both students and their present or future employers what they want (which will include significant elements of vocational formation). We cannot just assume that what was good in 1950 is still good today.