Archive for January 2018

Inflation buster?

January 30, 2018

The Times Higher Education journalist (and director of the journal’s global rankings), Phil Baty, recently ran an informal Twitter poll in which he asked whether it was time to abandon degree classification and adopt the grade point average framework. Of those who responded, 65 per cent were in favour of this particular reform. This is not of course a scientific survey, but has it become more and more inevitable, in the light of the claimed trend of grade inflation, that there will be change in the traditional way of classifying student performance?

Or is the time right for this particular reform, but for reasons unrelated to the charge of grade inflation? Some UK universities have already adopted the grade point average system – it may make sense to review how this has worked for them.

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The never-ending epilogue to today’s message

January 28, 2018

Sometimes you just need to get something off your chest, so this is today’s lament – bear with me.

I received an email today. The substance of the message was contained in five words, three of which were ‘kind regards’ and a name. Nevertheless, despite this admirably concise communication, the email was, according to my computer, 190 KB in size, and if I had printed it (which I didn’t) it would have covered almost two entire pages.

Why was this? Because the organisation to which my correspondent belonged automatically inserts one hell of a ‘signature’ at the foot of every email sent. This contains a long and hugely convoluted formula telling us for what the organisation concerned does or does not (mostly not) accept legal liability, and what you or I should do if we were to stumble upon the email without being the intended recipient. It then adds a paragraph about the organisation itself, not sparing some considerable detail in praising its no doubt wonderful achievements. It then adds a whole lot of contact information, at which point you find that the organisation has offices in six countries around the world, all of which are set out in some detail. It then repeats some of all this is another language. And, finally, it inserts into the signature a number of images with logos, a photo of its head office, and some graphics the meaning and purpose of which rather eluded me.

This is perhaps a particularly bad case of this kind of genre, but it is by no means unique. Some of these add-ons have been pressed upon organisations by our friends the lawyers, who seem to think that we must all insert endless legal exemption and non-liability clauses into emails that no one ever thought were or are necessary in letters. Others have been prompted by the perceived need to let no electronic communication pass without lots of PR stuff chucked in.

My strong wish for 2018 and beyond that people stop doing this. Really, stop. Give it up.

The hard slog for university gender equality

January 22, 2018

In the late 1980s I addressed a session of the annual meeting of the Conference of University Personnel Administrators – as it was then called: it is now Universities Human Resources (UHR). At the time I was a Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, and one of my specialisms was equality and discrimination in employment. I was asked to reflect on the state of gender equality in universities. So I told the more or less all-male audience that universities, however progressive they liked to think they were, had an abysmal record as regards equality. The percentage of senior university academics or managers who were women was tiny, and many universities refused to do much about it because they were totally convinced that all their policies and actions were totally non-discriminatory. As one of the university managers suggested in the subsequent discussion (and I wrote this down), ‘if no competent women willing and able to do the job properly apply for senior posts, what can we do?’

Thirty years later, what would I be saying at the conference now? Well, in fairness, we have come on a little. But it has been slow going. About 12 years after my address I became President of Dublin City University. At the date of my appointment, it did not have a single woman professor. Not one. By the time I left this had somewhat improved, but gender equality in the academy had by then become a big issue in Ireland, with the discussion focusing rightly on how inadequate progress was.

Most recently, it has been reported that 23.7 per cent of professors in Scottish universities are women. This is an improvement on the last time that the figures were reported, but clearly there is still some way to go before women are represented in senior positions in accordance with their overall share of the university population. My own university, Robert Gordon University, performs well above the average, with women making up 50 per cent of the professoriate.

Maybe we have come at least some way, because no one would now, I suspect, ask ‘what can we do?’ We know that we can do things. One bundle of these things has been highlighted in the Antwerp Charter on Gender-Sensitive Communication in and by Academic Institutions, highlighting ‘academic institutional communication’ as a vital driver or inhibitor of equality. The Charter was developed as part of the EGERA Project (‘Effective Gender Equality in Research and Academia’), involving a consortium of eight continental European universities, and focusing on structural changes and processes for implementing greater equality as well as the actual equality objectives themselves.

In the United Kingdom the Equality Challenge Unit (shortly to be merged with the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation) is the key champion of ‘equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education institutions’, and it has had some effect in raising awareness of the issues that still inhibit equality. It offers guidance to institutions in a number of different contexts.

Progress is being made, but there has not to date been complete success. The ultimate driver of success is a change of culture, which includes a greater focus on how we take decisions, how we communicate, how we interact with each other and offer support, how we expect people to structure their lives and working environment. The need to advance equality remains strong. And we could all still do better.

Public funding of autonomous universities: living with the complexities

January 15, 2018

Some years ago, when I was still President of Dublin City University, I attended a meeting between Irish government officials and university heads to discuss national higher education strategy. At one point the conversation focused on university autonomy. Everyone agreed that such autonomy is vital for an internationally successful higher education system; but what exactly did ‘autonomy’ mean?

It quickly became clear that each of the the two groups had a very different understanding of the term. The university Presidents saw it as the right and ability of an institution to set its own strategic direction; the government officials  believed it meant the right of the institution to decide the methods by which it would implement government priorities.

The gap between the two was maybe not quite as big as the above description implies, because even university heads accepted that if the state gave them public money, it had a right to insist that this helped to deliver key government objectives; but governments should not have the right to determine a university’s overall strategic direction.

These tricky issues are now again being thrown into relief in Ireland with the publication this week of a government-commissioned report of an independent expert panel, Review of the Allocation Model for Funding Higher Education Institutions. The recommendations contained in the report suggest that funding contingent on the achievement of government objectives can be compatible with the preservation of ‘institutional budgetary autonomy’. The latter however is defined as being about the ‘internal allocation of funds’, not about the harnessing of funds to develop an institutional strategic direction.

The report sets out a number of hard-to-argue-with objectives of a new model, such as widening access and support for research and innovation. However, it proposes complex allocation criteria and formulae that would, inevitably, erode the capacity for flexible use of funding within institutions as these learn to play the system and therefore chase particular performance indicators on a mathematical basis to maximise income.

For me, the Scottish system of ‘outcome agreements‘ is easier to apply and more flexible. It generates agreed targets (which do also in part reflect government priorities) which are set within a wider strategic framework that universities can develop for themselves, and doesn’t align the funding criteria too closely to these in any detail. These leaves much greater operational and strategic flexibility, while still giving the government a degree of assurance that institutions are working with public policy objectives.

Irish universities already suffer significant disadvantages in terms of autonomy, such as the controls exercised by the state in staffing and remuneration. Adding to these disadvantages, even in an understandable cause, carries major risks. The recommendations of the expert panel should be considered with some care.

The will of the people

January 9, 2018

Citizens of the United Kingdom have over the past year or two become accustomed to a particular assertion – that there is one thing beyond argument, because it is ‘the will of the people’; and that of course is Brexit. Let us not re-open all the EU debate for the moment, because that is not the intention of this blog post. Rather, I am interested in how our view of democracy is evolving.

Until 2016 the ‘will of the people’ would rarely have been a topic of discussion in Britain. Of course elections produce governments and all that, but I cannot recall any government ever brandishing its parliamentary majority and proclaiming that its manifesto promises were now ‘the will of the people’. Indeed doing so would be very questionable, since British governments are typically elected with the votes of a less-than-overwhelming proportion of the population. Elections are a process in which the people participate and by which parties or groups of politicians form governments, where they have managed to negotiate the system satisfactorily. It works, and has on the whole provided the UK with reasonable stability and security. But it would be hard to say that elections revealed the will of the people; governments so formed were just less incompatible with the will of the people than any other option.

A referendum is a different class of decision-making. In the UK in 2016 the people voted, and a majority decided on a particular course of action, with profound consequences of course. The people became the government on this issue, having been briefed, with outrageous contradictions in the briefings, by politicians and activists on both sides. And now even elected politicians must, if they are to avoid the unwelcome attentions of some tabloid newspapers, fall into line, no matter who elected them and what views their own voters might have on the issue.

So if the electorate can take this political decision, why not others; indeed why not every major decision? It is not a completely outlandish thought: Switzerland does something that comes pretty close. Many major decisions there are taken by the people in referendums: in 2016 there were nine such referendums, and in 2017 there were three. Of those twelve propositions put to the vote, five were adopted by the electorate, and the rest were rejected. So for example the people decided to smooth the way for third-generation immigrants, and to reconstruct a tunnel; and they rejected a revised corporate tax code.

Should the electorate be taking such direct decisions? On the whole, in our system of government we don’t think so. Then again, the UK does allow its citizens to make proposals for parliament, which parliament must debate if such proposals attract enough signatures. These petitions can be seen here. As you might expect, here you find numbers of people riding their favourite hobby-horses. Of course there’s a whole lot of stuff about Brexit (some of it quite zany). There are a few petitions about hunting. There are several which are, frankly, impenetrable. More to the point, none of these (the recent petitions about the state visit of Donald Trump being an exception to the rule) will ever make any difference, because they won’t attract the required number of signatures. Even those that are brought to parliament’s attention will not in the end lead to anything much.

I think European countries (except Switzerland) were right, in the first place, to establish representative democracies. We elect politicians, and we allow them to exercise judgement. Sometimes their judgement, by a significant majority, will not follow what we must assume is a majority popular view (capital punishment being a good example). But that is also good because while the majority must rule in a democracy, it must not always get its way; because if it did, it would be able to oppress minorities and endanger human rights, sometimes unwittingly. Let us not go that way. The will of the people should not always determine our frame of reference. Not least because popular opinion is fickle: opinion polls tell us that there is, apparently, a degree of buyer’s remorse regarding Brexit.

Happy New Year 2018

January 2, 2018

May I wish all my readers are a very happy New Year!

And as I always want to be helpful, you can find a list of words not to use in 2018 here. To be honest, I don’t think I have ever used (or even come across) ‘nothingburger’, but there you are. It can’t be that impactful, but what the hell, covfefe!