Archive for October 2015


October 29, 2015

As some readers may recall from an earlier post, this summer I was on a week’s holiday in Vienna. For those who do not know it, I can highly recommend the city. It is the capital of a a small and, in geopolitical terms, relatively insignificant country. But a century ago it was one of the great powers, ruling a good bit of central and Eastern Europe. The First World War brought all that to an end, but in Vienna its glamorous past can be seen everywhere, in the grandeur of the buildings and the visible traces of the once powerful Habsburgs.

Vienna is also a city of vibrant art and culture – and as far as I know is the only city with urban vineyards and wineries (Grinzing). I thoroughly recommend it.

The building above is the Hofburg, once the main palace of the emperors in the city centre. In 1938 Hitler addressed the people of Vienna from the balcony, having just annexed Austria.


The Habsburgs eventually spent much of their time in the Schönbrunn Palace, above. It is a grand complex of buildings, designed to rival Versailles. I was able to attend a concert in the Orangerie.

Of course, no serious-minded visitor to Vienna can spend a day or more there without visiting the Hotel Sacher.


This is the home of the famous Sacher Torte, a chocolate cake that everybody needs to try at least once.

Apart from Vienna, I also visited some rather beautiful nearby towns, including Baden bei Wien. In Baden, the town in which the last but one Habsburg Kaiser, Franz Josef, spent much of his time, there is a particularly striking war memorial, with the inscription ‘Vater, ich rufe Dich‘ (‘Father, I implore you’).


And I also crossed the border into Hungary, visiting another town favoured by the Habsburgs, Ödenburg (now called Sopron). It is also rather beautiful, but nevertheless still carries the signs of decades of neglect during communism.


Throughout my week there I felt a strong sense of history, as one cannot really help feeling in much of central Europe. It is an area well worth a visit.

Universities and the UK’s EU referendum

October 27, 2015

There is little doubt, one supposes, where the balance of opinion lies in the British university sector regarding EU membership. When the UK votes, in 2017 or whenever, on whether to stay in or leave the European Union, academics and students will probably vote overwhelmingly in favour of staying in. I say ‘probably’ because we cannot of course know for sure, but those voices that are most audible right now are all in favour of membership. This includes the universities themselves and their leaders, as formally represented in Universities UK – which has launched a ‘Universities for Europe’ campaign. And Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and Vice-President of UUK, has joined the board of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign. In fact I know of no voice amongst the university sector’s leadership advocating a no vote, or even expressing any degree of uncertainty.

In case you were wondering whether all these EU supporters at the helm of higher education were representative of the wider community of staff and students, the answer is that they probably are. The Social Research Agency NatCen has published polling data showing that the young and educated overwhelmingly want to stay in the EU, in contrast with older and less educated people. Indeed on this blog a well respected academic from Dundee University last year argued a strong case for Britain’s continuing membership.

My purpose here is not to ask whether this great consensus of people is right; but rather what role, if any, universities should play in this debate, or indeed any other debate like it. Should universities be making the case, one way or another, for a particular position on an issue which the people are to be asked to vote?

There is no easy answer to this. When the Scottish independence referendum campaign was under way in 2014, the agreed position of Scotland’s universities was to highlight the issues that might affect higher education, but to avoid advocating a yes or a no vote. This avoided any division within the sector, and also allowed universities to do what they do best – analyse and explain. Universities were part of the national debate but were not partisan; and that may be a good position to occupy wherever a debate – with two civilised sides to the argument – is taking place in a society that is divided on the issue.

It is my hope that many academics will be heard in the national discussion about Britain’s future within or outside the EU. It is also perfectly good for academics to take sides publicly, on the assumption that they treat those who disagree with them with a degree of respect. But I do not believe that universities as institutions should be partisan, not least because if they are, the force of any substantive arguments they may wish to make will be weakened. Avoiding a recommendation to citizens to vote one way or another, while setting out the issues that should be considered, is the best position of institutional integrity.

Waterford and Carlow, and the strange tale of a proposed ‘technological university’

October 19, 2015

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute or the city for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

Since 1997 there has been a statutory mechanism for examining the case an institution might make for conversion to university status. Under the Universities Act a panel of national and international experts would be established to examine the application, and would make a recommendation to the government based on criteria set out in the Act. There is at the very least a strongly arguable case that any such application by WIT would succeed.

But that would be all too rational and simple, so of course we cannot do it that way. Partly because Waterford is not the only institute of technology wanting to be re-badged, and because regional political pressures might push the system to consider such ambitions seriously, a much more complex and totally implausible framework has been established, based on the idea that there should be a separate category in Ireland of ‘technological universities’.

The idea of technological universities emerged in the Hunt Report, National Strategy for Higher Education, published in 2011. This report suggested that such institutions could be created by merging clusters of institutes of technology and calling the resulting organization a ‘technological university’. The criteria to be applied, which were to be set out in legislation, do not differ markedly from those we might expect for a university more generally. And before anyone would be able to apply for such status, they would first have to merge with someone else.

There are all sorts of problems with this proposed framework. First of all, contrary to what is suggested in the Hunt report, there is no recognized international concept of a ‘technological university’. There are some institutions with such a name – the Technological University of Munich, and Queensland University of Technology are examples, but these are high value research-intensive universities, and nothing like the concept suggested in Hunt.

Secondly, and crucially, it is completely baffling why anyone would think that a merger should make two institutions more suited to be universities. The Waterford example is an instructive one. As I have suggested (and as many others have also concluded), very good arguments can be made for university status for WIT. However, the institute has been told that it can only be considered for such a status if it first merges with Carlow Institute of Technology. Carlow is a perfectly good institute, but has nowhere near the same claim for university status as Waterford. It has a much more modest research profile, and generally has a profile that is extremely valuable but not typical of a university. So how are we to make sense of the proposition that WIT is not good enough to be a university, but that if it merges with a weaker institute (and one with which it has no record of strategic collaboration) it will be more eligible? Frankly, this is totally crazy.

In fact, the assumption that merged institutions are stronger than individual ones is very questionable. None of the world’s top 20 universities is particularly large. In fact, the world’s top university (according to Times Higher Education) is Caltech, which if it were in Ireland would be the smallest third level institution here. In addition, none of the 100 largest universities in the world are in the top 100 ranked institutions. There simply is no correlation between size and excellence.

Finally, there is no evidence that mergers between institutions based in different locations are a good idea. Those that have been tried have more often than not failed. There is, simply, a need for Irish policy makers more generally to stop thinking of mergers as a good solution to anything. The fixation on this objective has the potential to do damage to the system

It would have to be said that Irish public policy on Irish institutes of technology has gone badly wrong. Rather than trying to force institutions to do something that really makes no sense, it is time to think again.

So here comes the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ – do we actually need it?

October 12, 2015

The UK Government has indicated that it intends to introduce a system for assessing teaching quality of a kind that would be comparable with the Research Excellence Framework (REF). In July the new British Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, set out his agenda in a speech to Universities UK, in which he referred to ‘delivering a teaching excellence framework that creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect’. He added that ‘it is striking that while we have a set of measures to reward high quality research, backed by substantial funding (the Research Excellence Framework), there is nothing equivalent to drive up standards in teaching.’

As a result there is now a process under way in England to design a TEF. Right now it is not yet clear whether Scottish universities should also be part of this framework. Some have argued that, for league table and related reasons, it would be important for Scotland to take part; others have indicated they would prefer Scotland not to join the TEF. But in any case, how sensible is the whole idea?

Even in our age of measuring everything to create raw material for rankings, no attempt had been made to date to develop metrics to rate comparative teaching excellence. In part this reluctance has been driven by recognition of variety – teaching will not always take the same form and pursue the same objectives from institution to institution and from subject to subject. But it is also really unclear as to whether there are objective standards that can be measured. Or rather, where something can be measured (such as student satisfaction) it already is.

The big risk inherent in a TEF is that it will punish innovation. Just as the REF (and its predecessor, the RAE) undermined interdisciplinarity and encouraged competent mediocrity, so a new TEF may persuade academics that sticking with traditional courses and teaching methods is safest. I hope we don’t go there.


Negative educational equity?

October 5, 2015

The funding of higher education is something currently under review in a number of countries, including Ireland and Wales; but any debate around it raises issues not just of how an ambitious university system can be resourced, but also of the impact of a fees régime in a country that chooses to let the the students pay for some or all of the costs of their education.

It has now been estimated that in England the average student can expect to pay £63,000 for their university education – a sum consisting of tuition fees and living costs, and amounting to much more than the deposit for a mortgage to buy a house. While it is also clearly the case that a university degree will significantly enhance a graduate’s career prospects and salary expectations, there may come a point at which the cost is greater than the expected return; a condition sometimes described as negative educational equity.

One of the possible consequences of this state is that some may choose to look to higher education outside of England; and recent reports have highlighted the much lower cost of degree courses in some European countries, many of which are now being offered in English. There are apparently signs that some English students are availing of this opportunity, while international students are being put off from coming to England by the cost.

Therefore, while there is a strong argument for saying that free university tuition is something the taxpayer cannot afford, it can also be argued that a funding régime that imposes tuition fees on all students while the state detaches itself from the resourcing of higher education is equally unsustainable and may produce unintended consequences. University funding needs to reflect the value of higher education to graduates, but also the value to society. It is an area in which an ideological approach to what is right and what is wrong is very unlikely to be satisfactory. The reality is that, in order to have a successful system, the state must carry some of the cost, as must those taking the courses – where they can afford to.