Archive for September 2014

Irish higher education and the quest for something better

September 29, 2014

During my ten years as an Irish university President, one of my recurring and deeply frustrating experiences was encountering politicians who had persuaded themselves that the university sector received too much funding, wasted resources and needed more control to resolve this problem. Two of the four Ministers for Education who held office during my tenure came into the job proclaiming that something was wrong with the universities. One of them decided to test his suspicions by introducing funding cuts in the middle of an economic boom, while the other declared he was establishing a ‘forensic audit’ to find out where all the money was being stashed away by the institutions. Both of them hinted they had postbags full of complaints from citizens about wasteful expenditure in the sector.

Throughout the decade the university Presidents robustly defended the universities, pointing out that they delivered excellent results on the back of per capita funding far below that available to institutions in other developed countries. Then came the recession, and in 2008 we were advised that cuts would come soon, and would be brutal. Salaries were cut and employment was controlled, student contributions went up and government funding was reduced significantly. Now, six or so years on, the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, writing in the Irish Times, has said that government funding has over this period been reduced by ‘almost a third’, seriously affecting the student experience and university rankings. Perhaps a little confusingly, he also suggests that ‘through the dedication and hard work of both front and backline staff in the universities, quality, although at risk, has been maintained.’

It is very difficult for universities to make a case that a crisis threatens to engulf the system when they also suggest that cuts of 30 per cent have not compromised quality. Indeed that suggestion might convince long retired education ministers that they were right all along. Global rankings tend to attract media comment, but how much they really affect university fortunes could be debated. Even student/staff ratios generate much more excitement amongst lecturers than they aggravate students.

One of the problems is that few of those engaged in the higher education conversation have made a clear case as to what constitutes quality, and therefore what could be put at risk by inadequate resources.  The quality assurance industry built up over the past decade or so has focused on process rather than substance, and reports emerging from that system give few clues as to how close we may be to compromised educational standards. Saying that quality has been maintained gives little insight into what might happen if ‘quality’ were damaged or lost. Nor does it tell us much about what investment could do to raise standards and assure global competitiveness. Saying something like ‘if you give us more money we’ll ensure that what we’ve always done is performed to the highest level of quality’ won’t be persuasive if you’ve just said that without this money you’ve actually managed to achieve the same thing.

Irish higher education clearly does need more money, but it also needs new ideas and new models of delivering learning and research. It needs a narrative, a ‘story’. The IUA is an excellent and well-led organisation, and there is imaginative leadership in the universities. Generating this story is not a task that cannot be performed effectively.

Calls for more funding, or for other resourcing mechanisms including tuition fees, will make little headway as long as those who will take the decisions don’t really see what the new money will buy and why that should be bought. It is time to generate a narrative that says something about what higher education should be doing that would have the potential to transform the lives of those experiencing it and the fortunes of the country, beyond what has been delivered in the past. It would perhaps be better to stop talking about percentages, or resources, or processes, and to focus instead on what a new and maybe somewhat different framework of higher education can do for society. People need to be convinced that there is something better out there that deserves some money. Right now, I suspect most politicians and officials are persuaded that cuts have gone some way to reducing excess fat without seriously compromising quality, and that the impact of these cuts can and should be contained by a bigger dose of centralised controls: the worst of all possible worlds.

Information overload

September 22, 2014

No reasonable person can be opposed to the idea of freedom of information: the idea that bodies in receipt of public money should be accountable and should be required to release information about how it is spent and how decisions are taken. I am instinctively and on principle in favour of such a framework.

But my support for freedom of information is sometimes sorely tested. So for example, recently I received my university’s report on freedom of information requests received in July and August of this year. There was a total of 33 requests – which I might say in passing is considerably more than the total we would typically have received in a full year when I was President of Dublin City University. We have calculated that processing and answering these 33 requests took 42 hours of staff time, in addition to the time spent by our freedom of information officer in managing the system.

I might have felt this was justifiable if the questions were of real significance and answering them met a public need. Some were. But a majority of them were submitted by people and organisations who wanted us to compile lists of products we use or services we require; in other words they wanted us to provide them with free information on the basis of which they could seek private business deals with us. One particularly annoying question asked us to compile a list of annoying FOI requests we receive.

Freedom of information is a precious resource and should be maintained. But there needs to be a mechanism which distinguishes genuine requests from those that merely try to secure private commercial advantage or which ask us to engage in detailed analysis of rather trivial issues, using significant public money in the process. It may be time to allow us to charge for the staff time spent in compiling answers. Freedom of information should not become a major bureaucracy in its own right.


September 19, 2014

Exactly three and a half years ago I arrived in Scotland to take up my post of Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. At the time there was a minority SNP government in Edinburgh, but within weeks the Scottish elections delivered an overall majority for Alex Salmond, and the path to a referendum on independence was set. Today we know the answer: a decisive but not overwhelming majority of Scots have opted for staying in the United Kingdom, having received a list of promises from the major UK parties of new devolved powers and responsibilities.

Scotland’s First Minister has called on the country to accept and respect the outcome, and that is a good start to the post-referendum deliberations. But the London parties will need to deliver a number of changes. Chiefly these will need to involve a much greater level of economic and fiscal autonomy, not least so that Scotland can stop being a recipient of a UK grant and instead develop a proactive and innovative economic strategy of its own, ensuring that it can be a successful innovation hub.

Universities can make a major contribution to this. During the referendum campaign one perhaps unexpected issue of contention in the political and popular debate was research funding. A number of academics expressed concerns that Scotland would lose access to UK research council funding, from which a number of the country’s universities had benefited disproportionately. I am myself all in favour of continuing UK research awards for Scottish academics, but I don’t see it as a priority in the same way. I believe that a distinct Scottish research funding framework, recognising the opportunities for successful growth in industry R&D linked to academic expertise, and recognising also the specific social and cultural needs of Scotland, would secure significant benefits.

For many who believed that independence could and would offer an exciting future for Scotland this is a disappointing day. But the energy visible over recent months on all sides of the campaign should now be harnessed to continue building a better, more successful, more innovative, more prosperous, more attractive Scotland. There is still much that can be achieved.

Scotland’s decision

September 18, 2014

I imagine that all readers of this blog know that, today, Scotland decides in a referendum whether it will remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent state. In this blog and elsewhere I have written about some of the implications for higher education of this decision, whichever way it goes.

I have written to staff of RGU in the final days before the referendum, and you can see this communication below. Right now it is my hope that as many people as possible are voting, and that the result will allow all those affected by the decision to see the future positively and with confidence. I know it will not be easy for many, but I hope that any disagreements and divisions will heal quickly.

I shall comment more on the outcome itself once it is known. Tonight I shall be at the Aberdeen counting centre, which is in my university.

As I write this, the Scottish independence referendum is 11 days away, and right now the outcome is too close to call. As I know from emails I have received from colleagues, and indeed from students, over the past few months, there are strong opinions in the RGU community on both sides of the question. That of course is how it should be, and I hope that the university has been a safe place in which to put forward views and be heard in a respectful way.

Once the votes are counted we will know what constitutional future lies ahead, though not yet exactly what form some of the more precise aspects will take. If the vote is Yes, there will be national, and indeed international, discussions and negotiations, and these will stretch over the next two years at least. If the vote is No, there will still be detailed debates about how Scottish devolution should develop. In each scenario there will be implications for universities, though I suspect these will not be dramatic either way.

I do however hope that this university, and its staff, will play an active role in the process that is to come. RGU, I believe, represents much of what is best in Scotland, and I shall seek to ensure that we are heard in the discussions that are due to take place. I hope that colleagues who have something to contribute will also be prepared to participate, and I would be happy to hear from anyone who would like to do so. But whatever your views may be, and however you feel about the referendum outcome, I hope that this will be a supportive and collegial place for you to be over the time ahead. Let us make sure that we are active and constructive contributors to plans for a bright future for all of this country’s people.

A place for the lads?

September 15, 2014

Round about now, in universities across many parts of the world, young people are beginning their university courses and experiencing the higher education environment for the first time. Many of them will quickly thrive in an atmosphere of critical inquiry as they acquire new knowledge and skills. But often before they really get to that, they experience university life in its more exuberant form, as parties and other social events are held to celebrate the new academic year.

Most of this is good – the experience of social interaction is one of the objectives of higher education. But occasionally early (and subsequent) extra-curricular activities can take on less desirable forms. A survey conducted by the UK’s National Union of Students has found that 26 per cent of students have suffered unwelcome sexual advances, going up to 37 per cent in the case of women. The existence on campus of a ‘lad culture’ is, the NUS has suggested, having a particularly detrimental impact on female students.

Universities cannot, and should not, try to manage the lives of students, but they do have a responsibility to protect those that feel vulnerable and to ensure that the student experience overall is positive. The NUS survey suggests it is time for institutions to take the issue seriously, and to look more closely at the student culture to ensure that it is not oppressive to any members of the community.

The hope must be that all those entering a university now will find that their time  there is not just educationally positive, but also enhances their experience of community life. Indeed that must be more than just a hope. It must be the intention.

Opening new universities

September 8, 2014

In a global environment in which countries compete with each other for investment and for migrants with experience and skills, universities are a high value currency. There is little doubt that having a university brings significant benefits to a town, region or country, but only if the university’s credentials are right. Where that is not the case, the existence of a higher education institution of suspect quality or with other inadequacies can actually do some harm.

So if there is a proposal for the establishment of a new university, or for the granting of university status to an existing institution, what criteria should be used? This is currently a live issue in Ireland, where a number of existing institutes of technology (the latest being Athlone) have declared they will use a new statutory framework to apply for the status of a ‘technological university’. The Higher Education Authority, which manages this framework, has now announced the membership of the expert panel that will advise the Authority on ‘the viability and adequacy of plans for the creation of a technological university’ in each case.

This new Irish framework is seriously flawed, not because it allows for the establishment of new universities, but because it assumes that a ‘technological university’ is a recognised distinct type of higher education institution, without really making it clear why there should be such a separate category and without providing necessary assurances that the quality standards are the same as those that would apply to ‘normal’ universities. Most of the criteria are, at least on the face of it, similar to those one would expect any universities to meet. But the whole thing is undermined, and in my view fatally, by the absolute requirement that such applications can only come from what is described as a ‘consolidation of two or more institutions’. Why this should be a condition has never been satisfactorily explained, and it produces the result that one, high quality, institution cannot apply for technological university status, but if it joins another institution of lower quality it becomes eligible. Furthermore, apart from partnerships in the Dublin area, such joint bids will have to come from institutions located in different towns or regions, creating geographically separated multi-campus institutions that will find it very hard to create a coherent joint strategic direction.

A very good case can and should be made for institutional diversity in higher education, and there is not just room, but real demand, for universities that are, as one might put it, closer to the market and focused on the usability of their courses and research. But this should not be subject to different quality thresholds and should not involve the requirement of illogical and perhaps unworkable combinations. There is room for one or more new universities in Ireland; but the government should think again about how this is achieved.

MOOCs and online learning – moving beyond the silly hype

September 1, 2014

A year or two ago a number of people who wanted to grab a bit of public attention in higher education claimed loudly that MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) were the future, and that all universities would have to go down this route. One English university vice-chancellor predicted that universities which did not embrace MOOCs would ‘risk being left behind’. Nobody, not even the co-founder of major MOOCs provider Coursera, could say what business model was supposed to under-pin this revolution, and often the rhetoric sounded more like revivalist preaching than educational strategy – but the hype continued to roll and seemed to have the capacity to persuade rational commentators that MOOCs were the future. Not even the really annoying acronym seemed to be able to put people off.

So a couple of years later, what do we see? MOOCs are still around, but thankfully the over-excited breathless rhetoric has calmed down. Thousands of courses were developed, but in most of these the overwhelming majority of students dropped out before completion. Few people now think that MOOCs will turn higher education upside down. Nobody is arguing any more than all universities must offer hundreds of MOOCs or perish. More importantly, most now accept that a university course with thousands of students that generates absolutely no income cannot be the way forward for the system. What we have instead is a growing movement to consider how online learning can be used to improve pedagogy and how online courses can provide a viable income stream.

The obvious way forward of course was to focus on the online aspect of MOOCs, and to be more realistic about student numbers and funding. Some universities (e.g. Georgia Tech) are now charging a tuition fee for such courses, though admittedly the fee is rather lower than for the ‘normal’ on-campus programme. Providers like Coursera are now looking for corporate customers to invest in courses. More generally, the much more reasonable agenda now is to find ways in which the MOOCs experience can support new developments that will bring higher education of good quality to larger audiences and how these participants can be properly supported.

There is no question that online learning will be a major part of the future. It is right to suggest that some disruptive change may improve what universities do. It is reasonable to argue that the traditional model of higher education cannot be the only way to offer teaching and learning. But it is also good not to get carried away by each new bit of hype.