Archive for April 2015

The right time to make an enlightened career choice?

April 27, 2015

Young people today go through various stages of their educational formation at which they, or someone on either behalf, make choices that will have a clear effect on the trajectory of their careers. At school they decide which subjects to take or keep taking – they lose mathematics, they lose a whole array of potential choices. They choose a university, they choose a course. And before they have any real experience of life they have often painted themselves into a corner of life from which they can no longer escape.

This has become so complex that ever more detailed advice needs to be given at an ever earlier age – as was done by the Russell Group of UK universities in a guide to post-16 subject choices:

‘It is really important that students do not disadvantage themselves by choosing a combination of subjects at A-level which will not equip them with the appropriate skills and knowledge for their university course or which may not demonstrate effectively their aptitude for a particular subject.’

Do we force specialisation on students too early, and do we help them to make intelligent choices? One contribution to this debate was made recently by the Chief Executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, who in a debate in Trinity College Dublin on enlightenment values suggested the following:

‘It is hardly in line with principles of the Enlightenment to force students into narrower and narrower subject choice options and deny them a broad first year experience with a focus on developing critical thinking and analytical skills.’

It is an interesting comment, but it is set against a backdrop of trends not in keeping with the ideal; and in particular, the trend to shorten higher education programmes – which in turn makes it much more difficult to have a liberal arts approach to the early stages of higher education – and the trend of turning secondary schools into the ante-chamber of higher education, rather than a forum for intellectual formation in its own right, using its own principles.

There is of course no single correct answer to the question in the title. But there are some wrong answers. Fording specialisation on young people at too early an age is one of them; not least because if we do so, the choices will often not be made by them, but for them. And that is wrong.

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Is it all about networking?

April 21, 2015

Right at the beginning of my academic year, when I was a new lecturer in an illustrious academic institution, an older colleague pulled me aside at a faculty reception and said, ‘I’m now going to give you the most important higher education lesson you’ll ever get’. And so for the next five minutes I sat next to him as he pointed one by one to everyone in the room and classified each one either as a ‘scholar’ or a ‘networker’; because, as he insisted, you could not be both.

He was I think aiming to recruit me to the ranks of what he considered to be scholars, and I guess that right now he is hugely disappointed in me, because he probably thinks I became a networker par excellence. In fact, is that really what a university head is – a networker, and nothing much else? You might almost think so from a piece written by two American university presidents in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently. Looking to give advice to new presidents, they suggest the following:

‘…Perhaps the single most important lesson that we can pass on to new university presidents is the indisputable importance of building and fostering relationships.’

Then they spell out which relationships need to be fostered, which it turns out is every possible relationship you could imagine, with absolutely everyone.

I am not ashamed of my skills as a networker. If we want to understand the society we live in and if we want to change it for the better, we have to be networkers. But networking is a means, not an end, and to put it to good use you have to understand and contribute to the larger scholarly purpose. So, the really good leader in the academy is both a networker and a scholar.

Gender in higher education: the contribution of governance

April 14, 2015

As a guest post on this blog recently explored, and as I’ve also noted previously, the higher education scene is not necessarily one of good practice in relation to gender equality. Women make up an increasingly large proportion of the academic community overall, but are still seriously under-represented in senior positions.

However it is not just employment practices in universities that deserve scrutiny, but also governance. In the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12, we found that women were not well represented on governing bodies, and as a result we made the following recommendation:

‘The panel therefore recommends that each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.’

This was picked up in the Code of Good Governance issued by the Committee of Scottish Chairs in July 2013, which included a wider principle of respect for equality and diversity, and a specific reference to equality goals for the independent membership of governing bodies:

‘The governing body, having due regard to applicable law, shall establish appropriate goals and policies in regard to the balance of its independent members in terms of equality and diversity.’

The chairs have now extended this commitment in a policy statement issued this month, with the following commitment:

‘[The chairs of governing bodies] will aim to achieve, on a timescale which may vary according to the circumstances of each Institution, a minimum of 40 percent of each gender among the independent members of the governing body; and will measure success by the extent to which this has been achieved for the sector by 2018.’

The commitment does not cover members elected by staff or students or nominated by external stakeholders, though these are encouraged to address the diversity commitment also.

How significant is this as an issue? I am pleased to say that since we assessed Scottish governing bodies in 2011 there has been some improvement. Most university governing bodies now have 30 per cent or more women members. The best in class is the University of Edinburgh, 51 per cent of whose Court members are women. A number of governing bodies (including my own) now have women chairs (of whom there were none previously). Scotland may be fact be out-performing other systems in these islands. A significant number of English universities score below 25 per cent, and most of the better performers are in the 30-35 per cent range. The same is true of Ireland, with Trinity College Dublin however managing 41 per cent (in what is largely an internal membership). The National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), which recently has been in the spotlight for gender equality reasons, has a governing body 36 per cent of whose members are women.

Of course gender (and indeed diversity more generally) is not the only criterion to apply, but it is important, if we want to say with any credibility that universities are representative of the wider population and its aspirations, that governing bodies reflect this understanding. There is still some way to go, but there has been progress.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the criticism that the university establishments have tended to direct at my governance review, it is gratifying to see that we have had a perceptible impact.

Value in bad-tempered dissent?

April 7, 2015

A few years ago I was visiting an American university as the guest of its President. We were having a cup of coffee in a faculty cafeteria when a middle aged man walked in. The President turned to me and whispered, ‘This man is the scourge of my life. He publicly states his disagreement with everything I say and do. He turns up at every meeting and criticises my plans. I have devoted more nervous energy to this man than to the entire university community put together; and I resent it.’ It was a very striking and passionate statement from what I had hitherto experienced as a very even-tempered man.

But actually the President’s nemesis was not that unusual a member of the cast of dramatis personae of the academy. In fact, a whole article has recently been devoted to the ‘curmudgeons’ of higher education (in this case American community colleges). The author defined curmudgeons as follows:

‘They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.’

Respondents in this study overwhelmingly found the influence and impact of such curmudgeons to be negative. Some curmudgeons themselves argued otherwise, suggesting that they played an important role in restraining institutional heads as they sought to implement every new flavour of the month (or the ‘latest snake oil’ as one put it).

Of course, any university head who is honest will accept that there is genuine value in dissent, not least because it sharpens up strategy and ensures closer analysis of plans and strategies. Dissent is also in the end part of the intellectual academic tradition and should be recognised as such. However, in some cases curmudgeons, seeing the stress they can cause, become self-important and, occasionally, bullies. Some begin to see causing offence as the end rather than the means.

It is important that universities accept, respect and encourage critical thinking, when applied to corporate strategy as much as when applied to intellectual propositions. Curmudgeons, on the other hand, would do well to show respect to fellow members of the university, even where they disagree with them.