Archive for August 2014

By hand

August 26, 2014

It may be worth prefacing what I am about to write with the assurance that I am certainly not a technophobe. I have always been pretty much the first adopter of any technological innovation, ahead of anyone in my peer group. I was using a word processor in 1981, I had my first PC in 1983 (and my first Macintosh in 1986), I was on the internet in 1992 and was using an iPhone and an iPad and so in the very first wave.

Why am I protesting so much? Because what I want to suggest here is that one particular form of using technology may not be ideal: taking notes on a laptop or tablet. I had started doing this some time ago, and at meetings and discussions I was always there with my laptop, and later my iPad. Then one day I was at a meeting and had forgotten to bring any of this equipment. I borrowed a piece of paper from someone and started writing by hand; and suddenly found that I was paying more attention to the meeting and getting a better quality of written note. So since then I have gone back to taking notes on paper. I digitise it afterwards, but the actual note taking is by hand. Indeed, I have even managed to recover my one time ability to write fast, a talent that had been lost due to lack of use.

Now I find that my experience may reflect a broader truth.  A professor and one of his students at Princeton University have conducted a study that has revealed that students who take notes by hand on paper during classes perform much better at subsequent tests than those using computers to take notes. It seems that the mental processes are different and therefore produce different results.

These days as I sit at meetings I notice that, usually, I am the only one to write notes by hand (though I will have an iPad to consult meeting materials). Maybe it is time for all of us to re-discover handwriting. We might even resurrect the fountain pen.

Minerva – the travelling university

August 19, 2014

As various university models receive consideration in discussions and research papers, one perhaps somewhat quirky initiative is actually being rolled out in Silicon Valley: the Minerva Schools. The project is the brainchild of Ben Nelson, an American entrepreneur who led and later sold the photo-sharing website Snapfish. It is, according to some reports, the product of Nelson’s dislike of traditional universities. So he has come up with something different – a ‘university’ that teaches its students in unorthodox settings that take them to four different global locations in the course of their studies.

The first year, during which all students will be in San Francisco, sees participants focusing on what are described as ‘Cornerstone courses’:

‘Your first year academics comprise the Cornerstone courses. From the study of complex systems to investigations into the principles of rhetoric and modes of artistic expression, the Cornerstones provide an integrated survey of the core curriculum. These four courses are the common intellectual platform from which you and your classmates will develop the skills required for future success.’

After that the students spread across the world in several continents, finishing their final year in London or New York. By then they will, according to the plan, have mastered ‘critical thinking, creative problem solving and effective communication’, and they will then pull this together in the development of a ‘personal vision’.

The available information is somewhat patchy about how all this will work organisationally and indeed pedagogically, but there is enough here to have attracted 33 founding students, who are about to embark upon their courses.

Can this work? That is impossible to say. Is it a worthwhile contribution to the development of new higher education models? Still difficult to say. But it may be worth watching how those first students fare as they enter the programme – and indeed, whether they will still be there in three years.

So what are you expecting of your university?

August 18, 2014

This is the time of year when thousands of young people prepare to go to university for the first time; and of course many mature adults are also taking this step. But what are they expecting to find there, and what do they hope that their studies will secure for them?

The UK version of the Huffington Post website carries a piece setting out some common misconceptions of university life; in particular the assumption that it’s all about fun, friends and partying. Most students already know this before they come – they are more likely to be focused on the added value they will get in the labour market.

I am pleased to lead the university that has the best record in the UK for graduate employment, but it doesn’t work like that for all institutions. Australian universities, as we have just been told, are much less successful in this regard: in a number of universities and in some subjects fewer than one-third of graduates have been able to secure jobs within four months of graduating. But even in elite Australian universities and in traditional or mainstream subjects (like law) over a quarter of Australian graduates may be without a job (where in my university it would be fewer than 3 per cent).

Does this matter? Is it the role of a university education to secure access to employment? As universities develop new strategies, harness technology, move into new interdisciplinary courses and enter into partnerships and alliances it will be important to have a clear concept of what students should be able to expect from their studies. This may of course not be the same for all institutions; but it is unlikely that students generally will regard employability as an irrelevance.

Scottish independence and higher education: a Commons committee perspective

August 11, 2014

This post was first published by the website The Conversation

On August 5, the House of Commons Committee for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) published a report on the impacts of Scottish independence on higher education, business, and the postal service. But the committee’s somewhat unoriginal recommendations don’t really extend beyond a large-letter “No” addressed to the Scottish government.

For anyone imagining the BIS report is an impartial investigation, it is worth pointing out that the committee consists entirely of members of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. These parties are all firmly committed to the case against Scottish independence. So it comes as no surprise that their conclusions constitute fairly standard rejections of the agenda set out in the Scottish government’s white paper on independence.

In relation to higher education, the committee decided to focus on two issues only: the question of tuition fees for students from the rest of the UK, and the possibility of the maintenance of a single research area in the British Isles. We can assume these particular choices were made because, in the eyes of the politicians involved, they pose the greatest difficulty for those advocating independence. Other important issues – such as academic and student migration, and further aspects of research strategy – were ignored.

What is more, the committee’s treatment of the two chosen issues is fairly superficial. The report contains minimal analysis, beyond the listing of some submissions made to the committee. It concludes that, if Scotland were both independent and a member of the European Union, it is doubtful whether it could continue to charge tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK.

Others have concluded similarly, as in recent research from the University of Edinburgh. But legal advice provided to Universities Scotland may offer a basis in EU law for the Scottish government to continue charging fees to students from the rest of the UK, post-independence.

At present, the UK is home to a single research area. This means that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland contribute public funds to one pot. Grants are then awarded by Research Councils UK on a competitive basis. The report states that in the event of Scottish independence, a single research area would not be “practical” or “desirable”. Even if everyone agreed to a common research area, the report suggests that each jurisdiction would have to fund work by its own researchers, with no cross-border subsidies.

Some academics have already expressed concerns about the implications of independence for research funding. But I would suspect that in the event of Scottish independence, some mutually acceptable arrangement can be reached that maintains much of the UK research community, while also allowing Scotland to develop its own national research strategy.

Of course, the effect of a vote for independence may not be as significant for universities as in other areas, because education is already a fully devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998. There is a Scottish cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning (currently Michael Russell), and a Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding to universities and colleges and oversees national strategy.

Even now there is no such thing as a UK higher education “system”. Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own frameworks, which differ from that of England. Perhaps the question that the committee should have assessed is whether, if Scotland votes for independence, some UK-wide structures could or should be maintained.

While there is significant divergence now between Scotland and the rest of the UK in higher education, there are also common traditions and links between universities across these islands. This is expressed most visibly in the existence of a UK-wide academic and student community, in shared quality assurance principles, and in the assessment of research quality.

But there are very significant differences in funding. And it may be that, in future, there will also be differences in the principles of governance, arising from the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12.

The parliamentary committee clearly decided to make a partisan contribution to the independence debate. It has missed an opportunity to make a thoughtful assessment of how a common concept of higher education could continue to be nurtured in a new constitutional settlement, whether that involved independence or greater devolution.

A hundred years on, lest we forget

August 5, 2014

A few years ago I needed some emergency dental treatment while on a visit to Germany. As I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s surgery I picked up an old book from the shelves there and was immediately engrossed in it. It was the autobiography of a major scholar who became Rector (Principal/President/Vice-Chancellor) of an Austrian university in 1913. In June 1914 he was about to preside over a graduation ceremony for 52 graduands. As he was entering the aula maxima, an assistant whispered to him that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In his autobiography he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the potentially awful consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and gave a short speech in Latin on the benefits of education. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduands, 40 would die during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the Second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the twelve surviving graduands would be tried for war crimes in 1946. He himself wrote his autobiography in 1947, and he died two years later at the age of 86. He wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But I could only say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’

As we reflect on the events of 1914 and all that follows, it may be worth remembering that a reference to the civilising power of education is not a platitude. It is, sometimes, all that we have, and it is everything.

Perhaps I can end this post with a short family note. The photo below is of my grandfather, a Lieutenant in the German army during the Great War. He made history by being the first in the history of warfare to drop a bomb from a plane; it landed in the Vicarage garden in Dover, thankfully hurting nobody. On 10 November 1918, just before the war ended, he was hit in the face by shrapnel. The somewhat basic treatment available at the time involved the insertion of a metal alloy to replace parts of his broken jaw. This subsequently proceeded to poison his blood and he died a few years later of the complications. May we all heed the lessons of that terrible war, and of all wars.

Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski

Leutnant Alfred von Prondzynski

Southern stories

August 2, 2014

I have always been interested in the American Civil War. It was a conflict which, in many ways, introduced the industrial warfare that became so deadly in the 20th century. It was for example the first conflict in which a submarine was used successfully in a military engagement. It introduced elements of military strategy and tactics that would be copied and developed in later wars. It saw death and destruction and scorched earth measures – in particular Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea‘ along the Savannah River. But its significance extends far beyond the military events of the 1860s. The war was also a political battleground on which civilisation and culture and rights were contested. There are, I believe, few wars in history that had a greater impact on the world. It ultimately heralded and facilitated the rise of the American era in world affairs.

But it was also a human story. The Civil War gave starring roles to huge personalities such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. But more importantly, it is the canvas on which the stories of thousands upon thousands of ‘ordinary’ people were painted, people who struggled to understand and make sense of the changing environment in which they lived. The most interesting places in which to retrace these stories is now the American South. And that is one of the reasons why I like travelling to the southern states.

This year, for ten days I took a vacation with my family near Augusta in Georgia. Known to many people as a golfing destination, Augusta is a town steeped in history. There are two buildings that, on this visit, attracted my attention in particular. The first was the Redcliffe plantation house, just across the state line in South Carolina. The 19th century house was built for John Henry Hammond, a major politician who became known in particular for his advocacy of slavery. He declared that ‘in all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties.’ In a speech to the US Senate in 1858 he declared that nobody would wage war against the South because ‘cotton is king’. Quite apart from his political views, Hammond was an unpleasant and somewhat cruel man in almost every aspect of his life.

The plantation house, below, is now a museum, and some of the slave cabins have also been preserved.


The second building is in Augusta itself, the Confederate Powderworks. This was built in 1861 to provide a facility in which to manufacture gunpowder for the Confederate army. It was located here because the Savannah River provided convenient transport access. The chimney of the factory, preserved officially as a ‘Confederate Memorial’, has the following inscription on its side:

‘This Obelisk Chimney — sole remnant of the extensive Powder Works here erected under the auspices of the Confederate Government — is by the Confederate Survivors’ Association of Augusta, with the consent of the City Council, conserved in Honor of a fallen Nation, and inscribed to the memory of those who died in the Southern Armies during the War Between the States.’


The complexity and harshness of elements of the Southern culture is also well illustrated in the painting below, entitled ‘The Price of Blood’, by 19th century American artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble that can be seen in the ‘Southern Stories’ section of Augusta’s art gallery. What it depicts is described as follows:

‘This painting … depicts a gentleman farmer transacting the fate of his own bi-racial son. The richly dressed man stares fixedly at the viewer while the sale is conducted. His son, the barefooted young man on the left, appears to be resolved to his fate. Though connected by blood, they are clearly separated by race and all that that difference implies.’


The photograph of the painting was taken by me (without flash) with permission from the gallery staff.

But today’s South, while tending to nurture politicians with rightwing views, isn’t just the place that once hosted slavery. It has its own way of life and its own culture, which even though I usually disagree with the local politics has some attraction for me. Perhaps it’s illustrated by this song, Southern State of Mind, sung by black singer Darius Rucker.