Archive for February 2016

The higher education freedom of information dilemma

February 23, 2016

During the past academic year, my university received 294 information requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Of these, 60 requests came from journalists or journalism students (the latter often given this as a task by their lecturers). Others came from a variety of people or organisation whose reasons for asking were not always clear. But significantly, 20 per cent of the requests came from companies or commercial organisations seeking information to assist them in putting business propositions to the university. Answering these requests took up 1.6 hours on average for each request – leading to a total in aggregate of six working weeks.

I bring this up because the Herald newspaper has reported that Scotland’s universities would like to be exempted from this particular burden, in line with a call to this effect made by Universities UK. In the Scottish context Universities Scotland is reported as saying:

‘Scotland’s HEIs are committed to transparency, which is guaranteed through the Scottish Code of Good HE Governance and many other regulatory requirements. However, they would welcome the removal of FoI obligations, which impose a very high administrative burden on institutions and, consequently, the diversion of resources away from core educational and research activity.’

It is of course a sensitive issue. Journalists’ investigations have revealed some uncomfortable stories from higher education, and freedom of information is an important journalistic tool. I suspect most university heads would agree with that. But is it our duty to spend public money on providing information to private companies wanting to business with us? Is it our duty to allocate serious staff time to queries which are unconnected with any public interest issues?

Its is, I suspect, inconceivable that the universities will be removed from the freedom of information framework. However, it is important that freedom of information is exercised in a way calculated to assure the general public that high standards of ethics and probity are employed in higher education, while not drowning the institutions in a sea of bureaucracy, staff time and costs. The time is right to review the system.

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How politicians resist scholarship

February 17, 2016

One thing to watch closely in the current US presidential election campaign is how some politicians adopt an ideological approach to what one might call the current state of informed knowledge. This is the case in particular in the approach of many Republic Party candidates, who as has been documented insist that they hold the truth on certain issues even in the face of different academic consensus. This leads them to argue against evolution, climate change and other conclusions of the academy, in terms that suggest that knowledge and science can never trump ideology. It is reminiscent of the rule of Stalin in the Soviet Union, who famously sent the scientist Alexander Chizhevsky to a labour camp, declaring that his research on sunspots had ‘taken an unMarxist turn’.

Knowledge, as long as it is critically evaluated, should of course always trump bias and prejudice, even if that prejudice wears the cloak of political doctrine. It is why the Republicans’ approach must be resisted, as should all attempts to sideline science, including attempts for example to declare that genetic modifications are always wrong irrespective of evidence. Politics should not determine the direction of scholarship or its conclusions.

Higher education: voters uninterested?

February 8, 2016

In a somewhat downbeat (but realistic) assessment of the state of Irish universities and colleges, the outgoing chair of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, laments that there are ‘no votes’ in higher education. Politicians won’t take the decisions they should take, he may be suggesting, because they are not under any pressure from the electorate.

While understanding where he is coming from, it is nevertheless not necessarily a correct assessment. There are many votes in higher education, but they tend to  converge on certain issues that are hot buttons with the public. Tuition fees are an example: politicians know they will draw the wrath of the middle classes if they abandon free tuition, and so generally they don’t. And then of course there are the local higher education issues: ask any politician from the South-East of Ireland whether higher education is an electoral issue, and you will certainly hear all about the case for a university in the region.

Nor is this confined to Ireland. In advance of the last UK general election, there was an interesting analysis in the Guardian newspaper about the higher education issues in England that would potentially have an impact on the vote. Indeed many people would suggest that the near-collapse in the vote for the Liberal Democrats was caused by their higher education policies. In the meantime in the United States student debt is gaining status as a key election issue.

The problem for universities is not that politicians aren’t interested and that voters don’t care. Rather it is that voters don’t much care about the key issue that drives much else: higher education funding. The narrative that has undermined much of higher education is that quality and global competitiveness can be achieved and maintained without anyone having to pay much for it, and that in any case there is too much waste in the system. There is little evidence that voters are concerned, for example, about institutional slippage in global university rankings. Politicians understand what voters care about and so they tend to those issues; and sometimes neglect the issues that really determine the success of a national higher education system.

Universities do register with politicians and voters; but not always in the way they would like. They will need to work out how to re-balance the political narrative, and how to do that in partnership (rather than in conflict) with the key politicians.

Diversifying the university ‘business’

February 1, 2016

While some of the most prominent universities internationally have an array of activities that include teaching, research, consulting, managing intellectual property and so forth, and while their financial accounts often reflect this diversity, overwhelmingly most universities are heavily dependent on income from one particular activity and one source of revenue: teaching undergraduate students, funded by the state. In this role universities are public agencies providing a vitally important and strategic service to national goals.

But they are also financially highly vulnerable. Their organisational health depends on the ability of their key funder to keep increasing their income in line with both inflation and the university’s strategic development goals – but almost no state can guarantee that kind of financial stability, and pressures on public money will quite regularly force governments to cut higher education funding, usually moving the funding baseline downwards as they do so. In the meantime the reliance on teaching prevents the institutions from developing a high profile reputation globally, which is really only achievable through high value research. Therefore a teaching-focused university threatened by public funding pressures has little with which to market itself to other potential funders or customers. The same may even be true of a privately funded teaching-only institution, which would still be vulnerable to market shifts affecting its customers and a lack of alternative products.

The answer to this problem is to behave, at least in some respects, more like the prominent high value research universities – while at the same time managing to find a set of priorities and values that distinguish them from those institutions. This view of how universities should behave in order to be sustainable was suggested in a recent comment on the US system in the Washington Post. The author, a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested that ‘the strongest universities are those that depend on more than just students for their revenue’, and that institutions should in particular ‘double down on their research efforts to attract new dollars.’ Of course there are many different ways of tackling a research strategy, and there are other ways also of developing revenue streams based on skills and knowledge; for example an increasing number of universities are now presenting themselves as commercial consulting firms.

It has been suggested for some time that an increasing number of universities may be financially at risk. To avoid slipping into this state and to ensure sustainability, higher education institutions would do well to diversify and to ensure that their portfolio is not excessively focused on just one particular activity.