Archive for May 2015

Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage

May 25, 2015

As most readers will undoubtedly know, Ireland voted on Friday last week on whether to amend the country’s Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937) to include in the article on the family the following sentence:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

As was widely reported, two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the amendment, thereby placing an obligation on the government and parliament (Oireachtas) to introduce legislation legalising and protecting same-sex marriage, alongside the continuing protection for heterosexual marriage.

The relatively decisive support given to gay marriage by the Irish voters is noteworthy, not least because the country has come a long way quickly. When I was an undergraduate student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s such a profound change would have seemed a very long way off, if indeed it seemed achievable in any timescale at all. However, TCD was probably the main hotbed for the emerging issue. One of its academic staff was David Norris, one of the few people at the time to have been brave enough to declare themselves gay and to bring the issue to the public’s attention. Back then the public was probably overwhelmingly hostile, but inside TCD David Norris was given the opportunity to make his case and to do so publicly.

Over the years that followed others in TCD, and other universities also, became vocal advocates for change. These included two academics destined to become Presidents of the state – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

It should not be thought that universities are dedicated exclusively to progressive liberal values, nor should it be assumed that every novel idea championed by an academic should one day reflect the outlook of our national community. But it is right that higher education institutions should host and nurture opinions not at the time fashionable in wider society, and to protect those who wish to express unpopular views. In this case the big and welcome change last week carried through by Irish voters was made possible by the courage and persistence of academics, and by the university culture that gave them space to play their role. May this always be possible.

The end of the business school?

May 18, 2015

University business schools are sometimes even better known than their parent universities. Of course everyone knows about Harvard University, but Harvard Business School is probably mentioned even more in conversation and discourse. In relative terms business schools are a recent development in higher education. Many people assume it was an American invention, but actually the United States came late to the party. The first business schools, dedicated specifically to teaching business or commerce courses, emerged in France from the early 19th century, and then spread to other European countries. It was not until 1881 that the first American Business School – the Wharton School of Pennsylvania University – opened its doors. Though Wharton declares on its website that it was the first globally, in reality it wasn’t. Britain had its first business school in 1902.

But the real surge of business schools occurred somewhat later, from the 1960s onwards, and even in the past decade new schools were still being established. Some of these were stand-alone institutions not affiliated to any bigger university; some have had a semi-autonomous status in association with a university; some are integrated Faculty units.

The rise of the business school was accompanied by the rise of its flagship educational programme, the Master of Business Administration (MBA). This was an American invention, with the first one set up by Harvard Business School in 1908. The MBA did not appear anywhere outside the United States until after the Second World War. But by the 1980s it was ubiquitous, the most common taught postgraduate degree in the world, and also a uniquely profitable programme offered at a relatively low cost. Whole universities began to rely on the revenues from business schools and their MBAs.

But from about 2000 voices began to be heard predicting the decline of the MBA, and with it the decline of business schools. By the time the downturn and recession came later in the decade, such voices became more urgent. In 2009 the New York Times ran an article by Kelley Holland suggesting that MBA programmes may actually have contributed to the economic crisis as business schools had ‘become too detached from real world issues’. And now more recently others have come forward suggesting that a significant number of business schools may actually fail. The Dean of the Haas Business School at Berkeley has predicted the ‘demise’ of half of the world’s 10,000 business schools.

There is little doubt that a number of things are potentially conspiring to make the future of business schools more uncertain: technology, demographics, economics, and changes in how companies see the career development of their managers. It is also clear that the MBA is not the gold standard of business education that it once was. However, predictions of its complete disappearance have not come true, and to some extent it is a more resilient product than some have expected.

What can be seen however is that there is no longer a single model for a business school; but maybe there never was. Some focus on postgraduate or indeed executive education, some are integrated and include all levels of formation and training. But one trend that may be emerging is the disappearance of stand-alone business schools, not associated with any larger university.

Business schools need to be part of the strategic model of a parent university, and need to share that parent’s educational, scholarly and pedagogical perspective. Business schools will always be expected to make money, but they need to have a vision that goes beyond a financial model. With that vision, business schools, in all their variety, may be with us for some time yet.

Is the accessible university an unwelcoming one?

May 12, 2015

Ever since higher education ceased to be the classroom of the elite, questions have been raised from time to time about how accommodating universities are to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of these students will not have attended schools in which a degree is seen as the natural culmination of a young person’s formation, they will have grown up in families in which there is no experience of (and sometimes not much sympathy for) university life, they will have peers and role models whose success (where that has been achieved) will often owe little to any programme of study. So what impact do such students have on the university, and how will the university appear to them in turn?

One university warned in 2012 that requiring it to admit access students might force it to ‘lower its academic standards’; more recently the same university suggested, according to a newspaper report, that ‘moves to recruit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is discriminating against the middle classes’.

In America there are sometimes still more robust criticisms of initiatives to bring the disadvantaged into higher education. A conservative website recently argued that ‘intellectual damage’ is inflicted by ‘forcing the university to admit academically ill-prepared minority students’ – in this case using a survey conducted by the University of Illinois-Urbana.

What all this shows is that the case for inclusive higher education needs to be made and regularly re-made. Of course universities need to trade in intellectual excellence, but there is very little evidence that when they mainly educated the social elite their capacity for scholarship and discovery was greater. There is in fact very little evidence to back the suspicion that access students lower standards; in my experience they often outperform those from a more traditional higher education background.

Non-traditional students from disadvantaged backgrounds will only be problematic if the system does not properly support them. They have the same intellectual capacity for curiosity and scholarship, but need to be supported in nurturing and developing it. A higher education system that wants to include greater numbers of access students needs to have the resources to support these, a point that is not always understood by policy-makers. But given such resources, universities will find that these students will enrich their intellectual life and create a body of graduates who will both thrive in their careers and lives and be particularly loyal supporters of their alma mater. Access is not just a good cause, it is an enriching one.

What’s in a word?

May 5, 2015

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the travails of universities considering the desirability of a name change. Trinity College Dublin, a little while ago, toyed with the idea of calling itself ‘Trinity College the University of Dublin’ (assuming their business cards could be widened to fit all that in); it later, after a lot of negative feedback, changed its mind. King’s College London toyed with the idea of calling itself ‘King’s London’, another perhaps somewhat daft idea apparently abandoned. And more recently, the University of Akron in Ohio reportedly considered a name change to Ohio Polytechnic Institute; that such a change could be desirable will baffle university people in Britain, but in the United States the term ‘Polytechnic’ has a positive meaning, suggesting in particular an institution close to industry.

But that’s not my point in this post.

The anticipated change has drawn a hostile response from many quarters, in particular alumni and staff. It is the response of one of these academics that has shocked me far more than the name change:

‘Myself and a lot of my colleagues came to this university for a job because it was a full-fledged university, not because it is a polytechnic.’

Really? ‘Myself and a lot of my colleagues’? I am amazed that a senior academic would produce such grammatical nonsense. I know full well that the rules of grammar are increasingly dead, but surely in Akron they can say, without needing a patronising university president like me to prompt them: ‘Many of my colleagues and I came to this university.’