Archive for December 2014

This blog’s commentariat

December 24, 2014

WordPress tells me that exactly 15,000 comments have now been posted on this site in response to the blog posts themselves. That means, dear readers, that you have written some 750,000 words on these pages, amounting to nearly 10 decent-sized books.

Thank you, and congratulations, and happy Christmas!


In this game is the REF to blame?

December 23, 2014

Anyone working in and around higher education in the United Kingdom will have been obsessing about the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) over the past week. According to the REF website, it is ‘the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions’. A total of 154 institutions made 1,911 submissions to this exercise, and last week they found out how they had fared. The results will influence a number of things, including league table positions of universities and public funding. They will also have reinforced a trend to focus research attention and funding on a smaller number of institutions.

REF is the successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, which in turn had been around since the 1980s. The first one of these I had to deal with was conducted in 1992, when I was Dean of the Law School of the University of Hull. While I believe I was rather successful in managing the RAE, in that my department improved hugely between 1992 and the next exercise in 1998, I now believe that most of the decisions we took were good for the RAE and bad for research. In fact, that could be the overall summary for the whole process across the country from the beginnings right up to last week’s REF.

And here are three reasons.

  1. The RAE and REF have, despite claims to the contrary, punished interdisciplinarity, because the units of assessment overwhelmingly focus on outputs within rather than between disciplines. The future of research is interdisciplinary – but academics worried about REF will be wary of focusing too much on such work.
  2. Despite the way in which it aims to reward international recognition, a key impact of the RAE/REF framework is to promote mediocrity. For funding and related reasons, many institutions will try to drive as many academics as possible into published research, spending major resources on pushing average researchers to perform – resources that should really be devoted to supporting those who have the most promise. Of course some excellent researchers have been able to thrive, but in many institutions the RAE/REF process has hindered rather than supported real excellence. On top of that it has diverted some staff from doing what they do really well into doing things they don’t much like. One of the casualties of that, incidentally, is collegiality.
  3. The RAE/REF has produced a stunning bureaucratisation of research. A key difference between research management in my last university in Ireland (where there is no such exercise) and in my current one is the extraordinary amount of time staff have to put into the tactical, operational and administrative maintenance of the REF industry. Also, I shudder to think how much time and resources institutions will have spent last week managing the news of the results. Industrial-scale bureaucracy of course also produces huge costs.

Other equally good reasons for doubting the value of REF have been given by Professor Derek Sayer of Lancaster University, writing in the Guardian.

I am not against competition in research, nor do I believe that research performance should not be monitored. But the RAE/REF process is about ranking universities rather than promoting research. I have no reason to think that anyone who matters is listening, but it is time to think again about this process.

Brand new brilliant idea. Not.

December 17, 2014

Goodness, here we go again. A few months ago my former university, known throughout the world by everyone as Trinity College Dublin, thought it needed a new name, for reasons that baffled everyone except the consultants who had invoiced the college for coming up with the new brand. It was henceforth to be known as ‘Trinity College the University of Dublin’. Except that nobody thought this was a great idea, and so the college cut its losses (€100,000, reportedly) and kept the old identity.

Bad ideas are never killed off quite as easily as that, however. So now, another institution with a globally recognised brand and a huge reputation has decided that it, too, must pay someone (£300,000 this time, it is claimed) to come up with a daft new name. King’s College London, a genuinely renowned university, is to be called just ‘King’s London’. At least Dublin’s proposed TCTOUD would still have told you what kind of place it was. King’s London could be anything. And don’t even get me started on the grammatical implications.

The proposal sparked a rather amusing sequence of suggestions on Twitter for other name changes based on this model. But more seriously, nobody anywhere in the world needs to have it explained to them by way of a name change that King’s College or Trinity College are not some obscure secondary schools. Trust me on this. And that advice comes for free.

Catering for the best

December 15, 2014

I bet you didn’t know there is a university caterers’ organisation called TUCO (a great acronym for those of us who are Breaking Bad fans – one of the most extraordinary and mindlessly violent characters was called Tuco). Well, there is. Actually, this doesn’t surprise me; the only thing that surprises me is that, until a few days ago, I had never heard of it. Because catering is right at the heart of people’s university experience.

For myself, I remember very little about the quality and quantity of food I ate as a student; somehow the food wasn’t as important as other things, including drink. However, what I do remember is that food, or catering, were issues which once they were raised were guaranteed to produce heated argument, and with a bit of luck militant confrontation with the university authorities. And some of the causes were odd: on one occasion (in 1975 I think) we were willing to go to the wall in defence of the continued availability of burgers, beans and chips in the student cafeteria, a particular offering of food that should have been banned on health grounds rather than protected through militant action. A few years later, when I was a lecturer, I recall being at a general meeting at the university in which senior officers were having to announce a whole series of cuts because of dramatic reductions in government funding; in the discussion that followed the student representatives demanded to know (as their only question) what the impact would be on catering.

We shouldn’t laugh. Food is important, from the necessary provision of nutrition to the social networking that often happens when we eat. If we believe (as I do) that university is about more than classroom learning, or indeed classroom teaching, then we should aim to make eating on the campus a positive experience. Much of that is to do with providing choice and quality, and making it as affordable as is possible. But universities need to realise that catering is not an unimportant sideshow, and that presentation can be as important as the actual food substance. Overall, what can be more important than the experiences of the senses when encountering food, in stimulating company?

What is required therefore is a catering operation that values and is excited by food and understands its significance in building a scholarly community.

To ‘Brexit’ or not to ‘Brexit’

December 11, 2014

Guest post is by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee

Britain’s conflicting relationship with the European Union is nothing new; however over the past few months the prospect of ‘Brexit’ – shorthand for British exit from the EU – has become an increasingly realistic possibility. Cataclysmic change might be a longue durée historical process, and yet sometimes the unthinkable turns into the inevitable at such a fast pace that one is left with a sense of incredulity mixed with self-reproach and impotence. However, it is exactly at times like this that the case must be put with the greatest decisiveness: Britain’s place is in the EU.

One has to acknowledge of course that the EU has been a source of frustration even for those most favourably disposed towards it – and I’m not alluding to a certain unhealthy interest in the shape of cucumbers, or a more justifiable interference with our household appliances. The EU has long been perceived as a detached and bureaucratic entity whose inner workings are based on treaties (see the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) signed when the internet had not yet changed the world. For national governments to divert internal political disquiet towards EU inefficiencies was an open goal not to be missed. This is clearly the case with immigration at times of economic difficulties. In terms of popular support, the political drive to leave the EU is largely based on stirring up public concerns about immigrants abusing social benefits, ‘swamping the country’ and driving down wages. Over the past year we have witnessed an escalation of UK government’s rhetoric, from the disgraceful ‘returns’ pilot scheme for illegal immigrants, to threats of curbing freedom of movement within the EU.

On the face of it one might have expected a formidable reaction on the part of UK universities, one which would have explained to the general public the reasons why the European project and immigration are in the nation’s best interests. Unfortunately universities, somewhat weakened by the efforts to justify their own existence in a context of fierce (inter)national competition, have responded by taking the balance sheet approach alone. They have correctly pointed out that the immigration crackdown could badly affect the international student vibrant market. The President of Universities UK and members of the Universities UK board have written an open letter published in The Times – a 194 word reminder that ‘universities are national assets which contribute £73 billion to the economy’. Similar economic arguments have been further expanded in the Universities UK blog. Most recently a study by UCL migration economists Dustmann and Frattini (ironically non-British themselves), which concluded that between 2001 and 2011 EU migrants made a net positive contribution of £20bn was negatively reported in the media.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the universities’ reaction has been typical of the way the EU is seen from London (the perspective is slightly different from Scotland), where few understand the driving force behind ‘Europe’ and most think only in terms of free trade and practical, commercial results. No letter to The Times (such a quintessentially British, ‘olden days’ manner to address a 21st century problem) can fix this; what is required is a reminder of the ideal value of transnational knowledge, such as the excellent work carried out at CERN, the recent landing of a European spacecraft on a comet, and the framework that allows thousands of students on the Erasmus programme to acquire memories and experiences which last a lifetime. Universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone; the economic evidence is not sufficient, they should be tapping into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity. The risks of pulling out of Europe are far greater than establishing a ‘relationship with Brussels on the same level as Botswana’s’; rather Brexit would be a sad example of cognitive dissonance for a country proudly keen to remember the sacrifice of the fallen in the two world wars.

For all its faults in its current form, the ‘European project’ stems from a desire for reconciliation between European nations, shaped and defended by people from very different backgrounds who had experienced the horrors of nationalism. What we are confronted with in Europe today is no military war of course, but a resurgence of nationalist sentiments and emotions (see Marine Le Pen’s defence of the nation state in this recent interview, or UKIP’s ‘Little England’ pronouncements. This is a battle of ideas and it is incumbent upon universities to expose past delusions as well as the pitfalls of new ideological siren songs.

Creating an educational problem

December 9, 2014

Where in the course of education information, speculation, analysis or assertion is presented to students, it may be right or it may be wrong – or maybe just debatable. But it will not be right or wrong because legislation tells us so. Therefore it was inappropriate for the Tennessee legislature in 2012 to enact a law that protects the teaching of creationism and teaching that attacks global warming theory. Legislators have no special scientific or general scholarly insight that equips them to declare or indeed debunk received wisdom.

But before we get all indignant and superior about Tennessee, let us look at something closer to home, right now. The Scottish Secular Society has been lobbying politicians to do the reverse of Tennessee, that is to issue guidance to prohibit the teaching of creationism, or as the Society puts it, ‘evolution denial’. Interestingly, this move has been resisted by the trade union Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).

Law or government action should never entrench a view as being ‘correct as a matter of law’. Whether something is right or wrong should be left to analysis and debate, and nobody should ever be told that a particular perspective, even where this perspective is rejected by society as a whole or parts of it, may not legally be addressed in schools or educational institutions. If today government can prohibit any reference to creationism in education, then tomorrow it could use the law to prohibit the teaching of other matters it considers to be uncomfortable. Truth needs to be discovered and tested, not declared to be truth by state power.

I do not myself regard creationism to be valid science (as distinct from theology), but I trust the teaching profession to handle this appropriately. If the enforced teaching of creationism is wrong (as it undoubtedly is), then so is a legal or governmental order that prohibits any reference to it in schools or colleges. Finding the truth is an intellectual pursuit, not a legal one. The Scottish Secular Society should be robustly resisted in this matter.

What kind of graduates do we need?

December 2, 2014

I was at a discussion forum a while ago, and one of the topics was whether our universities were producing ‘the right graduates’; by which was meant graduates with qualifications for which there is a national need. Of course this is a loaded question, because it starts with the assumption that ‘national needs’ of this kind can be successfully identified, and that therefore there is such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ graduate.

I would suggest that there are three possible perspectives on this. The first is that the ‘right’ graduates are those who have graduated from the courses they wanted to study, regardless of whether these are priority subjects in anyone else’s perspective, including that of the government. The second is the opposite, that there is a legitimate public interest in ensuring that we have a viable flow of graduates who have acquired skills for which a need has been identified. The third might lie somewhere in between, with a mix of free choice qualified by availability, where the latter is driven by national priorities.

The problem right now is that, for the most part, we have none of these. It would be hard to say that there is free choice for students, because in exercising their choices they may often have been influenced or put under pressure by others (including parents). On the other hand we don’t have state control either. You might think that we actually have the third ‘middle way’ model, but we don’t. What restricts free choice is not national priorities, but rather the artificial distortions of higher education funding mixed with the vagaries of university recruitment and selection mechanisms.

It seems to me that there are some general things to be said about the ‘right’ graduates. Some might argue that those who have secured very good university examination results can become the ‘right’ graduate in almost any field. In addition, any graduate who has acquired transferable skills that will support economic and social development is a ‘right’ graduate, even if the course they took is considered irrelevant to the business sector the graduate is now pursuing.

On the other hand, it could be argued that higher education has a crucial role in securing a better distribution of specific skills and qualifications in the interests of the country. In Scotland’s case, and in particular in the circumstances of North-East Scotland, there is a constant debate about the extent to which the education system is producing enough graduates with skills in areas such as petroleum engineering or subsea geology, in order to plug the skills gap in the oil and gas industry. Should this determine the availability of student places? Or if not, should funding agencies and universities just ignore labour market requirements?

So ultimately the big question here is to what extent it is possible to persuade or convince students to consider courses for which a national need has been identified. Or should we should just let them go for whatever they want to do? Or else, should we perhaps contemplate a system where undergraduate programmes and modules follow a liberal arts model, and that specialisation (whether at the discretion of the student or with some other guidance) is reserved for postgraduate programmes and research?

I fear that we are groping around in this territory because we do not at this point have a consensus view of the purpose of higher education. Do we want higher education programmes to satisfy national skills needs in a more directed way, or do we want them simply to offer whatever it is the students want? Or maybe it is appropriate for different institutions, or perhaps even different parts of the same institution, to view this question differently. Indeed the real lesson for us may be that this kind of question does not have a right answer.