Archive for September 2018

Representatives of a long-past era?

September 24, 2018

For those readers not already familiar with him, let me introduce Professor Trevor McMillan. Professor McMillan is the Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, which he has led since 2015. But my interest in him here is prompted by his role as ‘framework champion’ of the soon-to-be introduced Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and as chair of the Framework Steering Group.

The Knowledge Exchange Framework is the latest UK government initiative to assess quality in core university activities, following the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). KEF will attempt to measure the performance of universities in their technology transfer activities.

As KEF is about the relationship between higher education and industry, it is important to have a sense of how the KEF champion sees university performance in this field. He is, one might say, not wholly complimentary about the sector, of which he is himself an important leader. So, he recently made the following comment at a conference:

‘Fundamentally we have a medieval structure that sits within most of our universities based on disciplines that are quite frankly irrelevant to the vast majority of organisations that want to work with us.’

He subsequently suggested that this irrelevance applied to university structures rather than disciplines, which doesn’t really follow from the syntax of the comment. But that aside, is Professor McMillan right to suggest that universities look irrelevant to partner organisations? Or perhaps more significantly, should he, as champion of KEF, be suggesting to the stakeholders of the higher education sector that its institutions cannot relate to them?

There is, as I have suggested frequently in this blog, a need to promote differentiation and diversity within higher education, and it may well be that some universities are better than others at interacting with industry and other sectors. It may also be true that knowledge exchange has not yet reached optimum levels in the UK. It is possible that KEF will throw all this into relief. However, it would be preferable for Professor McMillan to act as cheerleader for the sector in public, while helping to correct what it is not doing well in private.

In fact many universities have excellent knowledge exchange records. Their successes should be used to prompt and encourage others. I am not however persuaded that suggesting to businesses that universities are no good at interacting with them will support continuing improvement in this important higher education activity..

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Starting off

September 17, 2018

In a number of countries, and in very many universities, the new academic year has been getting under way this month. For students who are now embarking upon their degree studies, this can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but for many it is also something unfamiliar and occasionally intimidating. It is every university’s obligation to ensure that students feel supported at this time, and that those who are not comfortable know who they can turn to for help.

Orientation for new students should always include information about the help that is available for those who feel the need for it. This can and should be communicated in readily accessible online information – such as this example from the University of Colorado at Boulder – but also in face-to-face meetings and in classes.

Right now there is also a growing and welcome focus in universities on mental health, which must be accompanied by appropriate professional support.

Overall, the message to students must be that they should never feel they have got to face problems alone, and that there is always someone they can turn to who will listen, help and make time for them. That is the key duty that all universities must meet.

Protecting our honour

September 10, 2018

I’m about to make up a number here, but just work with me. Across the world in 2017, some 200,000 people were awarded honorary doctorates. A significant proportion these awards were handed to eminent academics, often at or near retirement, whose work was of real intellectual significance and produced wider benefits. Some were awarded to prominent people who showed their support for higher education activities and values. Some… – well some, you just don’t know why they got them.

I’m sure that it is not the most urgent issue to address in today’s global higher education, but I confess that, as a university head for the past 18 years, I was never absolutely sure how to handle honorary degrees. When I became President of Dublin City University I introduced a moratorium, and for the first three years of my tenure we awarded none at all. Then we carefully identified a small number of people with whose work and achievements we wanted to identify as a university, but we continued to do this sparingly and at most ceremonies there were no honorary conferrings.

I continued this approach in Robert Gordon University (and in fact had to deal with one honorary degree awarded before my time which we felt we had to revoke). While I feel really proud of ┬áthe honorary doctorates that were conferred in my time in both universities, I have never been quite sure whether my approach was right or wrong. It just seemed to me that the currency of these awards was increasingly debased across higher education because there were so many of them. I am absolutely not against recognising achievements, values and principles, and honorary degrees are a way of celebrating exceptional merit. This year for example, on International Women’s Day, RGU conferred honorary doctorates on three outstanding women, with very different backgrounds and profiles; it was a wonderful occasion.

But then again, is it right that a number of celebrities gather up a whole collection of awards that seem to recognise their fame rather than any merit? And still, some of these celebrities have done remarkable things to help others and uphold intellectual values. So what really is the correct approach?

I have no answer really, but would urge universities to make these awards signify something that supports and enhances the purposes and values of the institution, and to do it not so frequently as to obscure the special merit of each honour.

The need to address academic bullying

September 4, 2018

In my 38 years of management in higher education – in roles from Department Head and Faculty Dean to President/Principal – one of the most difficult tasks has been to confront those few people who were bullies and who were targeting more vulnerable or less powerful colleagues. Bullying is of course not unique to universities, but it can be particularly difficult to address in the academy, because it can appear to be tied up with academic freedom and intellectual autonomy.

It could be argued that this is connected with a wider problem in universities, in that academic discourse is occasionally conducted in an aggressive tone, because it is thought appropriate to defend intellectual positions in a robust manner. It is not too difficult for robust argument to morph into personal aggression. When this is experienced by someone in a more junior or vulnerable position than that enjoyed by an aggressor it quickly turns into bullying, and moreover can become a pattern rather than an incident.

The journal Nature recently published a commentary by an American professor in which she suggested that personal bullying can be an issue in science laboratories in particular, where postgraduates, postdocs and junior academics can be dependent career-wise on lab supervisors, and thus may not only be subjected to aggressive behaviour but may also find it hard or even impossible to resist or escape from the situation. And of course one would have to ask why they should be expected in the first place to escape in order to experience appropriate working conditions.

It is right to call time on academic cultures that subject people to personal distress. And it is right to emphasise that no amount of academic freedom can justify the mistreatment of colleagues. Each university should have not only a policy on this but also mechanisms to protect the vulnerable, and evidence to show that these mechanisms are taken seriously and work.