Archive for October 2014

To merge or not to merge: is that really a useful question?

October 28, 2014

One of the experiences of higher education is that policy-makers are all too easily seduced by the alleged benefits of merging institutions. This is true of politicians, but also of those who advise them and write policy papers for them. Much of the narrative focuses on the claimed disadvantages of having too many institutions, the hoped for savings brought about by having fewer universities, and the assumed better performance and impact of bigger higher education entities. While there may be a few examples that appear to demonstrate some of this, there is little consistent evidence that would back up these claims and aspirations.

In fact, most mergers that appear to have worked will on closer analysis be shown not to be mergers at all, but rather take-overs of smaller, often specialised, institutions by much larger universities. In such cases the smaller institutions will often be able to slot in to their new host university as a department, school or Faculty, keeping alive a good bit of the ethos and spirit of the legacy body. So for example I would expect the recent merger of London’s Institute of Education with University College London to work well, and indeed also the planned integration into Dublin City University of St Patrick’s College of Education (and others). These mergers work because they don’t require anyone to lose their ethos or purpose and don’t confuse their strategic direction.

It is an entirely different matter when policy-makers force on institutions mergers where there is no clear strategic reason for the integration, or rather where the reasons are based on totally unproven assertions or assumptions, and where the main objective just seems to be to make the institutions bigger. Contrary to what many politicians and their advisers appear to believe, there is absolutely no evidence that larger universities are more successful or are capable of having a bigger impact than smaller ones; indeed there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. So for example, not a single one of the 500 largest universities in the world is in the top 500 best universities in the world, regardless of which rankings you consult. By contrast, the best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings is also one of the smallest.

All of this has come into focus once again because of the truly bizarre spectacle now taking place in Ireland. Under a new framework for ‘technological universities’ (a category that has no objective meaning, as I have noted previously) institutes of technology can apply to become such an institution and so gain university status provided they merge with one or more other institutes first. One institute that has for some time been attempting to become a university is Waterford Institute of Technology. Following the new framework it had agreed to explore a merger with Carlow Institute. Last week however Waterford IT broke off negotiations with Carlow; according to media reports the reason was that its key performance indicators would suffer if such a merger were to take place, therefore making it less likely that it would be able to meet the legislation’s other criteria for ‘technological university’ status. The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan TD, has reacted to this by telling Waterford IT that it must merge with Carlow IT if it is to succeed in its bid for a change of status.

All of this underlines again the totally crazy nature of the new Irish framework. The message being presented to Waterford IT is that it cannot be a ‘technological university’ on its own, but that if it merges with a weaker institute it may be eligible. This is an incomprehensible requirement, which appears to be based on the notion that size is the only criterion that counts, and that all other elements of quality are irrelevant, or at least much less important.

Institutional mergers may be a good idea in certain circumstances, but they should take place because they make sense for the institutions concerned and because they add value. To require mergers simply because they align with someone’s general notion that mergers are good regardless of other considerations is a recipe for disaster. In the case of Ireland, it is very doubtful whether the whole idea of a ‘technological university’ makes sense in the first place. Waterford Institute of Technology is a fine institution with significant elements of quality. It should be judged in its bid for university status on the basis of those qualities. Forcing it to merge with another institution in which those elements are largely absent is no way to pursue this agenda.

Time to take the stress out of academic life?

October 20, 2014

Out there in what some still call the ‘real world’, there are many who will profess to believe that an academic’s life is full of relaxed days and pleasant comforts. Most of those working in the academy have known for some time that this is not so. Nor is this new: I have mentioned before in this blog that as far back as the 1990s I appointed a lecturer from an external professional legal practice background who left the university a relatively short while later because the work was too stressful.

Now there is another piece of new evidence. The Scottish education union, EIS, has conducted a survey of its members, which has come up with the following finding:

‘Teaching staff in the university sector have lower levels of wellbeing and satisfaction compared to overall scores of those working across all sectors of education. Some of the factors which contribute to lecturers’ wellbeing scores include concerns over management and leadership in their institution, as well as significant workload pressures and a lack of access to appropriate professional development.’

According to the survey results the two chief causes of stress are workloads and ‘dealing with management’.

There is no question that academics, as much as anyone else, have the right to a working environment that minimises stress and creates, to the greatest extent possible, a positive sense of opportunity and inclusion and a sense that everyone is valued and supported. But there also needs to be some recognition that stress apparently caused by management is often the result of external pressures, and in the system as a whole this requires more analysis. Universities are subject to mounting regulations, controls, targets and expectations, many of them encased in a framework of bureaucracy that maximises these pressures. It is time to look again at how all of this works, both in the system as a whole and within institutions. Stressed out and overworked university staff will not secure a world class university sector.

‘Non-academic’ staff in the academy

October 13, 2014

One of the refreshing aspects of my university, Robert Gordon University, is that it makes few distinctions between those employees who have academic tasks, and those whose work is administrative, secretarial, technical or professional. There is no hierarchy of decision-making that places the latter groups in a less favourable position. This is significant, because in most other universities I know there appears to be open or covert warfare between academics and others.

I once attended a meeting of one of the learned academic bodies and was astounded to hear a very senior professor from another institution argue that administrators were a cancer in the academic system, but I was even more alarmed when that statement was greeted with mutters of approval by many others present. Academics, the speaker suggested, were entitled to expect priority support from, more or less, an obsequious caste of non-academics seeing to their needs. More nods and sotto voce statements of agreement.

One of the key requirements for any successful organisation is that its key members and employees see themselves as being in the same family, group or team. I have seen more energy wasted in in-fighting between groups than I care to remember, and it helps nobody. But there should in any case be an ethical principle that expects and observes basic equality between different types of staff, whoever they may be.

Those commenting on higher education often ask whether the proportion of administrative and support staff is higher than it should be, with the unspoken assumption that a percentage closer to zero is ideal. This is not a good starting point, since without administrative and other support functions we are always at some risk that we cannot adequately provide student services and high value research.

Of course academics are usually the front line staff who provide the teaching and research functions that represent the university’s core business, and all staff need to recognise that and work accordingly to facilitate this function. But we are all part of the collegiate group, and nobody should be allowed to look down on people in other parts of the organisation. I believe that, by and large, we have got this pretty much right in RGU.

One way in which we might express this better is by finding an label that is better than ‘non-academic staff’ for those who are not professors, lecturers or researchers. It is demeaning to define a role by saying what it is not – there must be a more positive way of expressing it. That is something the academy could usefully concern itself with.

The Berlin story

October 10, 2014

As some readers know, I am German by birth but have not lived in Germany for many years; I last emigrated from my country of birth in 1974, moving to Ireland (for the second time) in that year. Since then I have returned for visits only infrequently.

However, every so often I do visit, and last month I spent three days in Berlin. It is not a city I knew well at all, having only visited twice previously, and each time for less than 12 hours. My first visit was in 1976, when the city was still divided, and on that occasion I was also able to visit East Berlin as it then was. The second time was not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I imagine that whatever impression anyone has of Berlin, it will always include a very powerful sense of seeing a city where the storms of history have blown more than in most places. There are signs of this everywhere, from the buildings and monuments of the city’s Prussian days, to the remaining evidence of destruction in World War 2, to the surviving reminders of communism and Cold War division.

Large parts of the city are still a building site. Restoration and recreation – the erection of buildings modelled entirely on destroyed and vanished edifices – is taking place alongside modern development. It is an astonishing sight. And then there is what one Berliner called ‘the return of history’ – Berlin is now the only city outside of Israel that has a growing Jewish population, an astonishing development.

The most recognisable landmark in Berlin is still the Brandenburg Gate. It was built in the late 18th century, based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. It marked part of the outer boundary of Berlin at the time. In later years it became a major part of ceremonial processions, witnessing the passing through over time of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and the Soviet Red Army. During the period when Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, only he was permitted to pass through the central arch of the gate; citizens had to pass on the left or right. During the Cold War the gate marked part of the boundary between East and West Berlin. The ‘Quadriga’ on top of the gate (chariot with four horses) has had a life of its own, having been removed by Napoleon and taken to Paris, then later restored, partly destroyed in World War II and subsequently restored (but only partly) and later fully restored. The Brandenburg Gate was at the heart of the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I took this photo during this visit, just after a heavy downpour of rain.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

The centre of political activity, now as in past periods (though not during the Cold War), is the Reichstag (the old Imperial Parliament). Badly damaged in the War, it seas restored and used as an occasional home for the West German Parliament, the Bundestag (then based in Bonn), until the 1990s, despite its location right on the border between East and West. It is now the permanent location for the Bundestag. The glass cupola (containing a restaurant) was famously designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster (who also designed one of the buildings on my campus). The Reichstag is surrounded by a whole city quarter dedicated entirely to parliamentary and government buildings.

Reichstag

Reichstag

One of the most overpowering buildings in Berlin is the Lutheran (Protestant) cathedral, located on the fascinating ‘Museum Island’. Built in the early 20th century during the Wilhelmine era, it reflected the Kaiser’s desire for Berlin to have a church that would rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It may have, more or less, succeeded. The extraordinarily ornate interior is overwhelming.

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin is a city of museums and galleries.

Museum Island

Museum Island

My guide book says it has the largest number of such facilities of any city in the world, and certainly you could spend weeks doing nothing else but visiting them. There are several major galleries, and museums on any subject you might care to mention. Though not strictly a museum, one building that caught my attention in particular was the New Synagogue. It isn’t ‘new’ in any contemporary sense, but was built as a sign of the confidence of the German Jewish community in the 19th century, some of whose surviving descendants have amazingly returned to live in Berlin. Not all of the building has survived, but the restored parts now house both a synagogue and a museum (separate from the huge Jewish Museum elsewhere in Berlin).

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue entrance

New Synagogue entrance

The plaque next to the door has the following inscription: ’50 years after the desecration of this synagogue and 45 years after its destruction, this house will rise again in accordance with our will and with the support of many friends in this country. The Jewish community of Berlin, 9 November 1988′.

Of course history never ends. But we may hope that it will not, in this place, retrace its steps. I don’t believe it will.

Gender in university leadership and governance

October 7, 2014

As is well known, in many university courses women now make up the majority of the student body. But when you get to academic lecturing staff, in the UK only 39 per cent are women. The proportion of senior academic posts filled by women is smaller still. There is still clearly a job to be done in higher education to ensure that there are no barriers that keep women from pursuing successful careers to the highest level in universities.

In this particular debate, one other part of the system is now coming under increasing scrutiny: university governance. There was some evidence that until recently university governing bodies were finding it difficult to achieve any kind of gender balance.  When the panel that I chaired reviewed higher education governance in Scotland in 2012, we recommended that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim.

The Herald newspaper has now looked more closely at gender distribution on university governing bodies, and found that there has been some improvement in Scotland, at least to the extent that a number of higher education institutions now have female chairs.

More generally, it is true to say that gender imbalance is not as severe as it used to be; but it is still far from perfect. Universities need to continue to address this issue, not least so as to ensure that women (and indeed men) do not end up in single-sex ghettoes in the labour market. A significant part of getting this right is to ensure that there are role models for both sexes: male teachers, female engineers, male therapists, female computer programmers. And of course, women as university heads and chairs.