Archive for August 2016

The academic career?

August 29, 2016

Every so often someone asks me whether I would recommend academia as a career option, and to be honest I am never quite sure what to say. Of course the academy has been very good to me, but what can someone entering the profession today expect?

The answer to this question, at a technical level, is probably the same as, or at least very similar to, what it always was. Anyone interested can get useful information from a variety of sources, such as this graduate careers website. But whether an academic life is in its essence as attractive and rewarding today as it was when I embarked upon my own career is another matter. I am not here talking about the pressures, the insecurity that some experience, the fading resources, the bureaucratisation. I am talking about the experience that should lie at the heart of higher education: the celebration of scholarship, learning and innovation.

What I have observed in the course of my career is the shift of focus from educational substance to educational process. Evaluations of performance and quality, which are handed out like confetti from almost every street corner, are too often not about what is done, but how it is done. Too often we don’t recognise or reward the major scholarly breakthrough (or perhaps even more importantly, the attempt to achieve one), but rather the willingness to abide by the new rules of academic practice.

Of course performance does matter, in universities as much as anywhere else – but we need to ask more questions about what kind of performance we are trying to encourage, and in particular whether we are looking for and rewarding intellectual creativity; and indeed whether we’ll actually recognise it when we see it.

I still believe that an academic career is one of the most satisfying imaginable. I would still recommend it to anyone with intellectual inclinations. But I hope that we will find new and better ways to encourage, support and reward academics into the next generation; and celebrate them most of all when they expand knowledge, not just when they show dedication to tidy educational processes.

The right participation?

August 22, 2016

It is that time of year again, when (at least in this part of the world) school examination results are out and universities make their final student selection decisions. It is also the time of year when questions are asked, again, about how many people should ideally participate in higher education.

Roughly a year ago a senior Australian academic, Leo Goedegebuure of the University of Melbourne, suggested:

While some may look at graduate employment rates and contend we have an oversupply of graduates, I fundamentally disagree. Not only is the middle- and long-term outlook for university graduates still pretty good, in a knowledge-based economy there is no limit on the level of educational attainment. The higher and the better educated a country, the more competitive it becomes.

Today a different perspective was offered in the Irish Times by Sean Byrne, lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology:

… Encouraging large numbers of young people to enter third-level courses without assessing their aptitude for the subjects they propose to study or their capacity for self-directed learning will inevitably lead to declining standards and thwarted aspirations.

The debate, if we can call it that, about the optimum participation rate in higher education is never really satisfactory because it doesn’t make explicit the very different considerations included in this question. The issues raised are pedagogical, economic and social; and this is complex because our assessment of pedagogy, for example, has significant social implications. When only a social elite went to university (which was generally the case until the 1980s or so) universities could offer a much less utilitarian curriculum. But when higher education is accessed by a majority of the population, it is more or less inevitable that it will focus much more on economic impact and need. And as we get closer and closer to a society in which almost everyone aspires to a university degree, most of these degrees will need to be closely linked to skills needed in the economy, at various levels.

Higher education participation has grown strongly in all developed countries by design (and rightly so). But what this means in pedagogical, economic and social terms has not become a matter of consensus. And so, every year around this time, someone will ask whether we are really doing the right thing in expanding higher education to such an extent; and will neither offer nor get a satisfactory answer.

Brexit and EU research funding – some necessary certainty?

August 16, 2016

Last week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, issued a statement, which inter alia contained the following assurance:

‘Where UK organisations bid directly to the European Commission on a competitive basis for EU funding projects while we are still a member of the EU, for example universities participating in Horizon 2020, the Treasury will underwrite the payments of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. As a result, British businesses and universities will have certainty over future funding and should continue to bid for competitive EU funds while the UK remains a member of the EU.’

British universities will undoubtedly welcome this statement, which at any rate removes the financial risk they could face by applying for EU research funds at this point. The statement may not however resolve the main problem facing British universities in this context, which is that European universities are now reluctant to include UK institutions in research consortia at all, and will certainly not accept them as leaders of any consortium.

All of this underscores the importance of clarifying government policy in relation to EU research programmes, such as Horizon 2020. If it is thought desirable for Britain to continue in these programmes it would be useful to state this as a policy objective right now, to provide some re-assurance to European partners. There is no conceivable benefit for Britain not to be included.

This should be a government priority right now, not least because it also supports the case for the UK as a location for high value, knowledge-intensive foreign direct investment; a case that the Brexit decision has somewhat undermined as one of the potentially significant unintended consequences. It is time to act.

Regulating higher education

August 8, 2016

One common feature of higher education in Britain’s political regions – i.e. England, Wales and Scotland – is that all are making or considering changes to the way in which higher education is supervised. Until now one aspect of each system has been the same: each had a regulatory and funding body – the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Scottish Funding Council.  Now however the nature and role and identity of these bodies has become the subject of official review or proposed reform, raising the question of what they are for and of whether they are necessary or helpful.

In England the government has proposed the setting up of an ‘Office for Students’ taking over some of the functions of HEFCE and other bodies. In Scotland at the time of writing the government is conducting a review of the ‘enterprise and skills agencies’ which may lead to a significant reconfiguration of the system. In Wales a review of higher education conducted by Irish academic Professor Ellen Hazelkorn was published earlier this year; she recommended a new agency to be called the Tertiary Education Authority (a proposed name drawing more than a little from Professor Hazelkorn’s Irish background).

The question raised by all this is whether a university system needs an arm’s length agency set between the sector and the government. Such agencies usually administer public funding and act as regulator; they also, to some degree, represent the interests of the university sector in addressing government. Is this a useful function that gives better protection to the institutions while also providing assurance of oversight; or could such a role be carried out more effectively within government itself (as is the case in Northern Ireland)?

Higher education has become one of the most regulated and bureaucratised sectors within what one might call the public interest areas of the state. Do these agencies make such bureaucratisation better or worse? Or perhaps, should government agencies be configured differently, so that innovation and research is managed in such a way as to ensure that university research is aligned (where appropriate) with private sector research or R&D?

Despite this trend of review and reform there has been little open debate about the value and role of these arm’s length agencies. Reform, if it is to occur, should not be by stealth but should take proper account of – and subject to debate – the appropriate principles of regulation and management.  Right now there is no visible common understanding of what these principles are.

Student debt gets political

August 2, 2016

A key issue in the current (and often strange) American presidential election campaign is student debt. There are a number of reasons why it has taken on political significance, but as an issue it was initially raised by the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who in his election programme promised to make university education ‘free and debt free’. The issue has also been taken on board by Hillary Clinton.

The prominence of this issue is underscored by various reports and news items. A blog post published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has pointed not just to the scale of student debt in America, but also its socio-economic consequences, increasing the gap between rich and poor and creating ‘negative wealth’ in a number of households. This finds a resonance on this side of the Atlantic, with a British lobby group suggesting that for many graduates the lifetime salary premium secured by a degree is likely to be overpowered by the weight of debt.

All of this tells us that nobody has yet found the silver bullet for higher education funding that is effective in providing necessary resources for institutions while also being socially equitable. Free tuition, notwithstanding the proposals by Sanders, places institutions at financial risk; a loans-financed higher education based on high tuition fees creates unsustainable debt. Sooner or later politicians will need to face up to the fact that means-tested support is the only way out of this. Maybe the US election campaign will help.