Archive for November 2018

Going electric

November 27, 2018

Nearly three months ago, I made a major change: I bought an electric car. Not a hybrid, but a fully electric vehicle without an internal combustion engine and therefore without any fuel tank. In some ways the change might not seem massive. I still put my foot on the accelerator pedal to get moving, or on the brake to stop. The steering wheel moves the car to the left or to the right. I indicate when I intend to turn. And so forth.

And yet, this is a fundamentally different experience. The car moves more or less noiselessly. It is heavily computerised, and almost every control is operated not by a lever or button, but on the touchscreen. You ignore filling stations, but spend some time planning your journey (if it’s a longer one) so that you know where you will charge the car. It feels like being part of something quite revolutionary, even when so much of it is the same.

And yet, is this the future, or just a staging post to the real thing? Will we soon be in an era in which we won’t drive our own cars at all any more, but call an autonomous self-driving vehicle that takes us where we want to go and then moves off somewhere else? Or indeed will we still take it for granted at all that we can travel at will from A to B?

Transport habits can change at a certain tipping point with extraordinary speed. In this image you can see New York’s 5th Avenue in 1900 and 1913. In these 13 years the traffic changed from almost entirely horse-drawn to entirely motorised. What will happen between 2018 and 2030 is not at all clear, but there is every likelihood of fundamental change; and there should be, not least because we need to stop urban air pollution.

So maybe I am taking part in something important. Or maybe it is just a very minor step towards something that will, in a short space of time, be quite different. We’ll see.

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A question of money

November 20, 2018

For a few years now there has been a steady stream of predictions that one or more English universities would face bankruptcy, or at any rate life-threatening financial difficulties. Most recently this month it was suggested that at least three universities are at risk. In what is an increasingly marketised system, the question this has thrown up is whether, in the event of such a crisis, the government or its agencies would throw a lifeline.

According to Sir Michael Barber, the chair of the Board of the new Office for Students (OfS), earlier this month, the answer is no:

‘The OfS will not bail out providers in financial difficulty. This kind of thinking – not unlike the ‘too big to fail’ idea among the banks – will lead to poor decision-making and a lack of financial discipline, is inconsistent with the principle of university autonomy and is not in students’ longer term interests.’

But then again, maybe it isn’t. Last Thursday the BBC reported that an unnamed university head received almost £1m in the summer ‘to stay afloat’ as it was ‘running out of cash’. The OfS, which provided the money, offered a complicated explanation of why this had been done, when Sir Michael had just emphasised that it wouldn’t be a good idea; apparently it was done under the framework previously applying to HEFCE, and so it was entirely different.

No matter. The question really is whether universities should always be protected by the state, or whether there are circumstances where it would be sensible to let a badly-managed institution close shop altogether. The issue is rapidly transitioning from being the sort of thing you might raise after you’ve indulged in food and drink excessively to one where the prospect of university bankruptcy does not seem beyond possibility. In the United States, a Harvard Business Scholl professor has even predicted that half of America’s universities are at risk.

Closing a university is no small thing. This is not about removing an excessively paid Vice-Chancellor from the payroll: it is about what happens to staff, students, suppliers and others who interact with it. It is about facing a big gap where the university previously provided a magnet for investment or regeneration.

Having a vague threat of liquidation hanging over institutions is not good. If universities are genuinely to face this risk, the rules in this context need to be clearly stated and understood,

War – and when memories become history

November 13, 2018

As absolutely everyone knows, we have just marked the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. We saw or heard about the various commemorations and ceremonies, and once more the Great War became alive. Peter Jackson’s extraordinary film, They Shall Not Grow Old, has added a new dimension of immediacy, a sense that we can see and hear and almost smell the trenches and the men who served in them.

I belong to the generation of people who remember talking with those who lived through the First World War. When I was a schoolboy in Ireland I occasionally got a lift by car from a local gentleman, appropriately called Mr Pickup, who fought in the war and was fascinated to meet a German. He had, as he told me, shot many Germans (and was nearly shot on some occasions by Germans), but had never spoken to one. I devoured his fascinating and compelling accounts of the fighting in France.

Both my grandfathers fought in the Great War, but I never knew either of them because they had died before I was born. One of my grandmothers told me stories of life in Berlin during the war. And there was Mr Pickup. But time moves on. Generations who could tell of their lives in the war passed away, leaving those like me who weren’t there but heard about it from those who were. And eventually there will not be anyone alive who was there our who heard directly from people who were. And at that point the war passes from memory to history.

Memories are precious, and provide rich materials for historians. But they are also personal, and carry with them the anguish and terror, as well as the pride and glory, of the experience. They keep all this alive, but also keep alive the impressions of contemporary politics, in which objectivity was not a huge concern. I grew up with the view, stated as fact, that the Great War was started by Germany in unprovoked aggression. More recent historical analyses (for example The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark) offer a more complex view. Whatever the judgement might be, it is better offered from evidence than from experience.

It is right, indeed it is crucial, that we remember and honour those who sacrificed themselves or were sacrificed in war. But these are experiences we must hope will not be repeated. To achieve that, history needs to take over where memories once dominated.

Universities and the leadership riddle

November 6, 2018

For 18 years, between 2000 and 2018, I held the leadership position in two universities. During that time I was interviewed several times by journalists and student reporters, and the one question I always found particularly difficult to answer was this: what was my ‘leadership style’? I never really saw myself as having a ‘style’ of leadership, and if I did it was a more appropriate question for others to answer than for me.

Leadership models can in part be defined by the constraints of the office. German university heads – Rectors (not used in the Scottish sense) – are usually elected and occupy, for a limited period, a position of ceremonial leadership rather than managerial authority. The Provost of Trinity College Dublin is also elected, but as the Provost also chairs the university’s Board, he or she can exercise very significant control over strategy and administration. In higher education institutions more generally, the impact of governing bodies can vary significantly, with implications for executive leadership.

Institution heads also face very different expectations by faculty and staff. But what are these expectations, and how are they expressed? An American study recently found that senior university staff expected their Presidents to exercise ‘transformational leadership’, and that institutions with such leadership tended to be in the top ranks of league tables. On the other hand, the Guardian newspaper in Britain recently reported a recruitment consultant as saying that university heads were now expected to have ‘the ability to engage with all stakeholders and to want to work in partnership with them and to do so in a low ego way.’

Of course all of this is tied up with the continuing debate about what kind of organisations universities are, and how the community of staff and students should interact with leaders to determine and implement institutional vision and policy. This in turn is complicated by governance, which is necessary for accountability but which often injects its own expectations, based on the external experience and insights of governors.

Over the past decade or two universities in a number of countries have been hit by bureaucratic and financial pressures that have prompted a fast pace of change, with universities scrambling to meet stakeholder demands while rarely having the time to consider calmly whether they were doing this in an optimum way. It has often been said that this has produced an atmosphere of low morale; but is probably more accurate to say that it produced organisational fatigue with some restlessness. Fine-tuning a leadership model in all of this has not been easy.

It is unlikely that universities can still take their time to come up with strategy based on verifiable institution-wide consensus. It is equally unlikely that university communities will for ever accept the formulation of strategy as a leadership prerogative. The tsunami of audit and review mechanisms makes it very hard for this balance to be got right, but sooner or later this must be allowed to happen. Sooner, I hope.