Archive for November 2014

Higher education investment and the role of the state

November 25, 2014

A few days ago several thousand people took to the streets of London to protest against higher education cuts, tuition fees and student debt. The protestors carried placards and heard speeches that called for free higher education, the end of student debt and progressive taxation. It is unlikely that their cocktail of complaints and demands will be taken on board, at least in its entirety, by any political party seriously aiming for government in Westminster, but it is clear also that there is a fair amount of unrest in student circles in England. But in targeting tuition fees above all else, the protestors may be addressing the wrong priority.

It may be worth saying that the argument for ‘free’ higher education (which is of course not really free, but rather consists of tuition funded by the taxpayer) is not without its difficulties. The financial burden of university studies is not felt evenly by all sections of the population. Students with access to significant private resources will not necessarily be troubled much by tuition fees; but disadvantaged students will always be affected by general living and material expenses even where tuition is free. In other words, wealthier students will notice relatively little difference between having tuition fees and having none, while disadvantaged students will find it challenging to afford even ‘free’ higher education. This is one of the reasons why universal free tuition does not, contrary to what its advocates often assume, necessarily draw poorer students into higher education.

A much more significant factor in the social (and indeed economic) impact of higher education is state investment. Many European countries have tuition fees, though on the whole these are low by English standards. However, such fees supplement (rather than replace) state investment, so that the latter can be effectively targeted at genuine need, whether this is institutional (investment) needs or personal student needs. It is arguable that American universities achieved global prominence once the US government realised that higher education investment would generate massive economic benefits; and now US disinvestment is coming at a time when we can discern a gradual slippage by American universities in global rankings, while aggressive investment by China and others is allowing their institutions to advance. The perfect model of higher education funding is serious public investment, accompanied by affordable tuition fees and targeted support for poorer students.

Some countries seem to have lost a mature understanding of what the state’s role is in higher education funding. This needs to be recovered.

What next for Waterford Institute of Technology?

November 18, 2014

Readers of this blog will know about the problems experienced by Waterford Institute of Technology in its quest to achieve university status. Recently, as was reported here, the Institute decided not to proceed with a merger with Carlow Institute of Technology; a merger of this kind is required by the somewhat bizarre new Irish legislative framework for the awarding of the status of a ‘technological university’. Waterford IT had concluded that the merged institution (if the marriage with Carlow had gone ahead) would actually have reduced its ability to comply with other requirements for university status.

Since then it has been reported that the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ms Jan O’Sullivan, is insisting on the merger and indeed has appointed a former Chair of the Higher Education Authority to mediate. But we have also learned that Waterford Institute will not cooperate with this process and will not go ahead with the merger.

Waterford IT is of course right, and the whole framework for ‘technological universities’ is very questionable. Waterford has a good case to be considered for university status under the old rules of the Universities Act 1997, and that is how the case should be evaluated. There is no basis on which any objective observer could conclude that a Waterford Institute merged with Carlow Institute of Technology has a better case for university status than Waterford has on its own. Carlow IT is not a bad institution, and does some interesting work; but overall it still lacks the activities and indeed the staff that would, at this stage, support university status.

It is time for the Irish authorities to recognise that the higher education ‘landscape’ that has been promoted in recent policy documents doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s time to re-think these plans.

Pedagogy, or just technology?

November 18, 2014

MIT News, the website that publishes news items from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is consistently worth reading, both so as to follow what MIT is up to, and for quick insights into some really interesting topics addressed in the university’s teaching or research.

This does not mean of course that MIT always gets it right. One item on the website recently caught my attention, but its main arguments don’t particularly persuade me. It presents some thoughts on the future of university education by one of its Mechanical Engineering faculty, Professor Sanjay Sarma.

Professor Sarma asks ‘what a college education will look like in 10 years’, and then paints a picture of an IT-dominated experience in which students’ work is (apparently) graded automatically and in which the largely online menu will, for any subject, possibly include video games. This particular vision is explained as focusing on student interaction and participation, but seems on the other hand to offer few settings in which such interaction could play out. Professor Sarma appears to think that MOOCs will be the main influence on future degree courses.

There is absolutely no doubt that new technology will play a big role in higher education in future; and indeed that is a good thing. It is also clear that students will learn differently, and at different times, and at different stages of their lives; also, all good. It is well worth asking whether traditional lectures will still be a key teaching platform – something which I doubt. But I would equally suggest that universities must not abandon the social side of learning, and the building of a student community in which learning comes from student peers as much as from professors. All-round automated processes will not easily produce such environments.

Technology is here to stay, and is a hugely important tool. But it should support, and not replace, real pedagogy.

Higher education legislation: benefit or peril?

November 11, 2014

Shortly after I took up my post in 2011 as Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, I was asked by the Scottish Government to chair a review of higher education governance. At the time a friend remarked to me that this would be a great way to learn fast all about the Scottish system; and a great way also to be hated by everyone within that system. I cannot say whether the latter turned out to be true, but it is certainly the case that recommendations on governance will not always please everyone.

The review that I chaired reported in early 2012, and we summarised the purpose of our work as follows:

‘It is not just a question of assuring the integrity and transparency of processes, it is a question of allowing society to protect its broader investment in education, knowledge and intellectual innovation in a way that makes the most of a long Scottish tradition adapted to the needs of the 21st century world.’

In this spirit we made a number of recommendations for reform that might maintain public confidence in the sector. We suggested that these reforms would be more easily secured through a code of good governance for Scotland, and also with the help of ‘a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management.’

Subsequently the chairs of the governing bodies of Scottish universities adopted a code of good governance which addressed some (but not all) of the review’s recommendations. And now the Scottish Government has initiated a consultation on a proposed Higher Education Governance Bill. This suggests that new legislation may cover six topics that were the subject of recommendations in the higher education review: (i) transferring the role of the Privy Council in approving university governance instruments to a new Scottish committee; (ii) creating a new statutory definition of academic freedom; (iii) clarifying the role of Principals of the universities; (iv) setting out procedures for electing a shortlist of candidates for chairs of governing bodies, and selecting the successful candidate through an election; (v) ensuring that governing bodies include staff, student and alumni representatives; and (vi) clarifying the role and composition of academic boards or Senates.

In bringing forward the proposals, the government has correctly identified those issues set out in the governance review that would require legislation in order to be implemented.  If enacted in the form suggested in the consultation document, the new statute would secure a system of higher education built on institutional autonomy and academic freedom, a system that recognises that universities need to be independent but that they must not be disconnected from wider public views and concerns.

It is already clear that the proposed legislation will not be supported by everyone. Trade unions have welcomed the consultation, but Universities Scotland (representing Principals) has issued a statement suggesting a fair degree of apprehension.

In his Foreword to the consultation document, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, underlined the government’s commitment to institutional autonomy:

‘The Scottish Government does not want to increase Ministerial control over universities, but support them to refine their governance systems, enabling an evolution that can enhance their important contribution to Scotland and the advancement of its people and economy.’

In a modern system of higher education, governments and universities need to balance the important requirement of institutional autonomy with the recognition that institutions also serve a number of public purposes and need to maintain the support of key stakeholders. This is not an easy thing to achieve, and the government’s consultation document will rightly prompt debate. But right now I think that the proposals, together with other instruments such as the code of good governance, have got this balance largely right.

The professor in government?

November 4, 2014

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my early teens. At the time I was living in what was West Germany, and the government was a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats. One of the key cabinet ministers was Professor Karl Schiller, who had previously been Head of the Economics Faculty of the University of Hamburg.

Fast forward to 2009. In its issue of January 16 of that year, the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education reported that ‘President-elect [as he then was] Obama’s transition team is raiding university faculties as it races to fill … jobs in the federal government’.  Some of those who had been headhunted included the Dean of the Harvard Law School (Solicitor-General), a Professor of Journalism at Ohio University (chief White House photographer), the Director of a Research Centre at George Washington University – and even the then new CIA Director (though he may in the past have been a Congressman and a White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton) had most recently been a professor at California State University in Monterey. The Chronicle suggested that ‘hundreds’ of academics would end up in government or in government agencies under the Obama administration.

Such a strong academic presence in government is not something we expect in these islands, in part because the career path for politicians is wholly different. Many frontline politicians graduate to that status from local government or from one of the professions (lawyers, accountants, consultants etc), whereas in many other countries there is much greater diversity of background. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that in Ireland there have been some prominent academic politicians: Garrett FitzGerald (Fine Gael and of course Taoiseach), Martin O’Donoghue, President Michael D. Higgins spring to mind. But despite that, academic politicians have been few and far between, and even political advisers have not on the whole been from the university world. In Britain I cannot immediately think of any academics who became frontline politicians, though readers may be able to correct me.

I suspect that this has been to the disadvantage both of politics and academia, as it has tended to keep principle and theory out of government and political reality out of academic circles, at least to some extent. So as not to be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that government should be dominated by academics, but some academic presence would probably be helpful, and would also make the workings and benefits of the universities more familiar to politicians. The gap in understanding between the two professions, which sometimes has consequences in government policy on higher education, might not be so pronounced.

Of course the opportunities for such involvement will remain few for as long as the politicians move along their current career paths. But maybe it would be a good idea to raise some questions around that anyway.