Archive for April 2014

Wise counsel

April 29, 2014

I may have been a very insensitive person back in the 1970s when I was a student, but I have to say honestly that I cannot remember any of my fellow students suffering any form of psychological distress. Of course we don’t ever know what goes on in someone else’s mind, and how much distress some people learn to absorb before they eventually snap. There must have been some who were stressed by examinations, personal relationships, concerns about whether they would find employment, and so forth. But I was not aware of any of this, nor was I aware of any university support services that might have helped those in need of them. Indeed in preparing to write this post, I have dug out the booklets and manuals and information I was given when I was a fresher, and there is no reference in them to any counselling or similar services; though there is, believe it or not, a robust defence of the use of recreational drugs. Well, it was the 1970s.

Thankfully most universities nowadays employ professional counsellors who can support students in difficulty. And while I cannot imagine that there were no students with such needs 40 years ago, it seems clear to me that the stresses and pressures that might create these needs are much stronger nowadays. Recently for example it was reported that 1,300 students of the University of Glasgow saw a counsellor in the last academic year: that is about 7 per cent of the entire student body. Students enter university with huge pressures: financial, personal, professional, academic. Not only are these pressures common, they tend to affect those most who have nobody to talk to to relieve them. The variety of problems counsellors may encounter and the complex needs of those seeking help are shown in this account of the work of a counsellor at a Canadian university.

Mental health and wellbeing are vital in higher education institutions. So universities need to provide and value the work of professional counsellors, sometimes also of chaplaincies or indeed student initiatives (such as the ‘Please Talk‘ programme in Ireland). Whatever form these services take, they should be strongly supported by universities everywhere. The key principle should be that, whatever your problem, you must know that you need never be alone. Never.

Reading time

April 27, 2014

On a Sunday, if I have no other commitments, I like to spend some time reading. And maybe taking photographs.


The CBI, Scotland’s independence referendum and the universities

April 24, 2014

The following article was first published today by the Press and Journal, Aberdeen.

Universities play a key role in the community. They are engines of invention and innovation, and they are also spaces for debate in which all voices are recognized and encouraged. It is not always an easy role to play, and it gets most complex when issues being debated are controversial or in any way difficult. In a few months Scotland will be invited to take one of the most important decisions in several generations: whether it wishes to be an independent country. As one would expect, there are strong opinions on this question, and there is a robust campaign taking place leading up to the referendum itself.

Last weekend the campaign gained a new active participant: the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) registered with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of the No campaign. In doing so it created issues for at least some of its members: those who might favour a Yes vote, and those whose duty it is to remain neutral; this latter group includes the universities.

I have no doubt that this CBI decision was a wrong decision. It had previously expressed concerns about the impact of independence (as was perfectly appropriate), but declaring itself as partisan on the issue was something different, creating real problems for organisations that, also perfectly appropriately, hold a different view. We were not consulted before the decision was taken, but if I had been, I would have offered a robust opinion in the matter.

Some universities reacted to the CBI move by resigning immediately from membership. RGU took a different approach. While I immediately said that we disapproved of the CBI decision, I wanted us to reflect on how we could best deal with the problem that had arisen and that was not of our making. We are an industry-focused university, with many links and partnerships in the business community. Equally, we need to be sure that we are both remaining neutral in this important national debate, but that we also provide a safe space for both sides in the debate.

These are the principles that we will apply as we move to decide how we should respond to the CBI move. That is the duty we owe to our students, our friends and our partners in the wider community.

Subsequent to the publication of this article by the Press and Journal, and after extensive consultation, I decided that RGU will suspend its membership of the CBI, and will review the position after the Referendum.

Art or just narcissism – should universities be places of refuge from popular culture?

April 22, 2014

One phenomenon of popular culture that suddenly erupted on the scene is the ‘selfie’. One can hardly call it a self-portrait, because that would suggest an artistic intention of sorts and an attempt to portray personality and appearance. Rather, the selfie is more of a casual capture of the moment, whatever that moment may be. It is everywhere: famously, Barack Obama and David Cameron shared the photographic frame in a selfie taken by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s funeral; and Ellen Degeneres provided some advertising for Samsung with her group selfie at the Oscars. And naturally you can wander through the pages of Facebook to see one of the selfie’s natural habitats. The onward march of the selfie has now even been recognised by the Oxford University Press, though not yet by its flagship, the OED.

Of course universities are not insulated from the world of selfies. Recently Bryant University in the United States asked students to stop taking selfies during graduations. And apparently the University of Alabama has tried to stop students from taking selfies in any setting at all ‘because it [is] immature and made them look bad’.

Universities sometimes have a difficult relationship with popular culture. There is often an instinctive suspicion of anything that has caught public attention in a sudden wave of enthusiasm, perhaps on the understanding that if it’s caught on too fast across society it will dumb down the academy if it enters there. While not every trend deserves academic recognition, some do. Charles Dickens was, in his day, part of popular culture, as was Shakespeare. The selfie may not generally be today’s manifestation of Rembrandt or van Gogh, but there is no need to get all worked up about it. In fact, I would love it if there were available for viewing today a collection of selfies from, say, 1914. Actually, if you look hard enough, there are.

Happy Easter

April 20, 2014

I would like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy Easter. If the religious context of the day does not resonate with you, then I hope that you will enjoy some nice chocolate; and maybe take advantage of the fine weather (if that is what you are experiencing).

Postgraduate studies, a higher calling?

April 14, 2014

One of the curiosities of my university education was that I completed my first postgraduate degree before I completed any undergraduate one. If I were to write about that in any detail, it would be too mind-numbingly boring, so just a very brief explanation: my undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin was a BA in Law. In those days TCD allowed law students to do, concurrently, the LLB (Bachelor of Law), which was technically a postgraduate degree (it’s all different now, by the way).  In fact the LLB course used all the same subjects (today we would say modules) as the BA, so there only real manifestation of doing two degree programmes was two sets of examinations. And that year, the LLB exams took place a few weeks before the BA exams. I told you this was boring.

So I graduated with two degrees at the same time, and stuck them both behind my name with hardly a hint of shame at this maybe rather doubtful practice. A couple of years later I had my PhD, so it didn’t matter much any more.

The LLB of that day was a most confusing thing. It had an undergraduate title but was, at least technically, a postgraduate degree; in that it aped its namesake in Cambridge, or the BCL in Oxford. Its syllabus – well, I’m not sure you could say it had a syllabus, as the BA lectures doubled up for the LLB – was hardly a postgraduate one. And the whole thing was corrected a few years later when the LLB became the primary undergraduate law degree of TCD.

If I had wanted to study law in the United States, it would have been rather different: I would have had to study for an unrelated undergraduate degree first, and then pursued my law studies at a postgraduate level, generally leading to the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which while labelled a doctoral degree is overwhelmingly not considered to be one.

And if I had studied any subject at all in Germany, it would have been hard to say whether what I was doing was undergraduate or postgraduate or some sort of seamless transition between the two.

Perhaps encouraged by the Bologna process, we have begun to look more systematically at this. It is not that we need to be pedantic or bureaucratic about it all, rather we need to have a clear sense of what we are doing pedagogically. We need to understand what standards and methodologies separate the different levels of degree programmes. We may also need to consider the significance (if any) of the different lengths of degree programmes culminating in the same award – some universities in Britain and Ireland have three-year undergraduate degree programmes, and some (including Scottish universities) have four-year ones.

As the framework for postgraduate courses becomes clearer, so they also appear to be gaining in popularity. Numbers taking postgraduate courses have increased very substantially over the past decade or two, and there is now evidence that those graduating with a postgraduate degree find jobs more quickly and more easily. But, apart from research degrees (including PhDs), what are postgraduate courses for? Are they a seamless extension of undergraduate programmes (as they clearly are in some subjects, for example engineering)? Is their purpose to address their subject-matter in a deeper way? Do they represent (as in the United States) a more advanced but also more vocational approach to learning? Are they the new gold standard of employability?

An increasing proportion of university students nowadays are postgraduates. That proportion is almost certain to rise. It is perhaps time to reflect on what the implications are for higher education.

What’s at stake?

April 7, 2014

The term ‘stakeholder’ is one of those words that appears to have suddenly emerged as a key concept of higher education policy. It is not a term, so far as I can remember, that was ever used when I embarked upon my academic career. Now it is ubiquitous in university documentation.

So what does it actually mean? The word ‘stakeholder’ was originally a legal concept referring to a person or body that held money or property pending a determination of who was the rightful owner. It was common for stakeholders to be used in gambling transactions, but in other settings as well. From this original use came the more modern meaning of stakeholder as someone or some body with an interest in the success or otherwise of a person, organisation or business. In the business world it is usually a reference to someone who, while not necessarily being a shareholder or owner, has a legitimate interest in a firm’s success or could be affected by its failure: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors. There is also the concept of a ‘secondary stakeholder’, who is not affected as directly by a firm’s fortunes, but who nevertheless has an interest: the general public, trade unions, community groups, and so forth.

So who are the ‘stakeholders’ of a university? The obvious primary group of stakeholders are students, and of course also staff. The concept may be seen as more complex when it is extended to government, industry (local or otherwise), schools, public agencies. As public policy to an ever greater extent expects universities to engage stakeholders in planning and in strategic communication, it is important to assess how far this community of interested parties could extend, and what entitlements they have. Some studies have suggested that there is a particular triumvirate of stakeholders whose interests should to some extent be accommodated: parents, communities and employers. This, it is suggested, should lead universities to adopt the business tool of ‘business stakeholder analysis’:

‘BSA is a useful tool for learning how to think more expansively about stakeholders, and then actively to incorporate these newly identified stakeholders into the corporate decision-making process without sacrificing institutional values.’

Universities, like other organisations, need to be aware of those bodies and networks that can have an impact on their success. Unlike firms, universities are often seen as public bodies, and this creates not just a sense amongst various groups that they have an interest in the institution, it sometimes generates a sense of entitlement in relation to them. Governments express this through the conditions they attach to the distribution of public money to universities and through the monitoring of performance. But it is felt more widely also: a man once came up to me on the campus (having recognised who I was) and proceeded to deliver a set of instructions as to what I, in his view, was obliged to do. He ended his statement with: ‘I have paid for all this, I am entitled to have my views taken into account.’

And indeed, in many way he was so entitled. Universities should not be resistant to the stakeholder concept; it reinforces a sense of the university as a significant element of the wider community, even if the institution does not have to dance to everyone’s tune. Autonomy should not, in my view, mean disengagement or disinterest. In some ways indeed we are stakeholders for the wider community: we hold the valuable property of knowledge in the interests of the society which, ultimately, owns it.