Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

August 24, 2015

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.

From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity

August 17, 2015

Back in the early 1990s, a British trade union developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed to be offensive to anyone with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, and before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one or two more of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

It is sometimes suggested that this kind of over-sensitivity has reached university campuses. In an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set out a fairly disturbing picture of American universities being subjected to increasing pressure not to let anyone say anything that could possibly offend or disturb someone of a very thin-skinned disposition. Examples given are pressure applied not to teach rape law in a law school, or not to make English literature students read The Great Gatsby (because it ‘portrays misogyny and physical abuse’). With this a (to me at least) new concept has been introduced: that of the ‘microaggression’. This is described as ‘small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless’ – such as asking someone from an ethnic minority where they were born.

It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them. But this should not mean encouraging people to make a great effort to find things offensive. Universities need to prepare students for the world, and it is a world in which they cannot be protected from such stuff at all times. Furthermore, the university must maintain a culture of curiosity and inquiry, which should not be restricted just because in some contexts not everything is completely lovely. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, if this approach is abandoned it will damage students both intellectually and mentally.

Respect and sensitivity must be part of any university’s framework of values. But at the same time, universities are there to challenge and  stimulate. This task becomes impossible if every innocuous statement has to be examined again and again before it is made, in case somebody unexpectedly might contrive to be offended by it. The academy’s educational mission must stay on the right side of intellectual vacuity.

Talking points: Getting poorer students to university

August 4, 2015

Throughout this week, I shall be raising, in a series of brief posts, some issues that I regard as being of current significance, inside and outside higher education.

One of the failures of almost every higher education system over recent years has been the inability to increase significantly the number of students from what one might describe as poor backgrounds entering university. Removing tuition fees has, where it has been applied, provided effective support to middle income groups, but has done little for the more seriously disadvantaged. Until recently it had been thought that, perhaps surprisingly, the English system (with loans-based tuition) had been most effective, but a recent analysis by the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University has called that into question, in particular because of the system’s apparent negative impact on part-time students.

There seems to me to be little doubt that the key driver of success is targeted support for the disadvantaged, with public money focused on this particular objective. Very few countries have shown themselves to be good at this.

Letter (or more of a note, really) from Vienna

July 20, 2015

While I always emphasise that academics do not, overwhelmingly, take anything more than very short summer holidays, it is still a good idea to get some rest, refreshment and perhaps a change of scene. In my own case, I am spending a week just outside Vienna (with regular day trips into the city). I have been here before, and once again I am struck by the almost overwhelming grandeur of this old city of the Habsburgs; I may follow this up with some photographs in due course.

But as you might imagine, I have taken just a little time to look at what is happening in Austria’s university system, and was struck by one development in particular. Since 1999, under an Act entitled Universitäts-Akkreditierungsgesetz (University Accreditation Act), a government-appointed Akkreditierungsrat (Accreditation Council) can receive and consider applications from proposed private universities and can recommend to the government that they be established (or not). As a result of this process a total of 12 private universities are currently in business in Austria, including a private medical school. These operate alongside 23 public universities.

Typically these universities – like the Anton Bruckner Privatuniversität – offer a very specialised portfolio of programmes, and little (or perhaps no) research. Austria is of course not alone in pursuing this particular model, and I have not had the time to look, for example, at the legal and operational model for each of these institutions (including the question whether they operate for profit). The growth of private universities, and their role within the overall system, is a topic that will need to be explored.

Gender equality in Irish universities

July 20, 2015

Previous posts in this blog – including a guest post – have pointed to the problem of gender equality in Irish universities, particularly in relation to career development and promotion.  The Higher Education Authority has now appointed a panel, to be chaired by former EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, to undertake a review into gender profiles and equality across the sector. The panel is due to report within a year.

It’s time to think creatively about higher education funding

July 13, 2015

The first time, a few years ago, that I visited Arizona State University (with whom my then institution DCU was developing a partnership),  I arrived at a particularly interesting time. Just as I was there the citizens of Phoenix approved by a significant majority in a referendum the proposal to create a $223 million bond to provide capital funding for a new ASU campus. This decision really impressed me: the willingness of the citizens to assume this burden, and the partnership it expressed that would allow the university to create state of the art facilities beyond the reach, at least at the one time, of almost any university in this part of the world. It also reminded me how unimaginative we tend to be when we look at the resourcing of higher education.

Interestingly, in Ireland the recently established expert group on higher education funding chaired by Peter Cassells, is reported to be considering savings bonds as a way of creating a partnership between families and the state in providing funding: families save, and the state matches their savings (or provides tax or other incentives on a significant scale).

It is time to move away from the binary obsession: that higher education must be paid out of general taxation; or else paid for by students or their families. Neither of these options now works well, leaving either serious under-funding or chronic personal debt. It is time to look beyond these old models.

Slimming down the lecture

July 7, 2015

One of the regular debates in contemporary higher education concerns the utility of the traditional university lecture: the one-hour-or-so presentation of a topic or related topics by a lecturer to a largely passive audience of students. Given changes in pedagogy and demographics, not to mention new technology, it has been argued that this traditional vehicle for teaching is or should now be largely redundant.

But while it is regularly argued that the traditional lecture has little to offer technology-enhanced or distance learning, there is one adapted form that does seem to be popular: the micro-lecture. Here is how it has been described:

‘Microlectures (snippets) are simple multimedia presentations that are 90 seconds to five minutes long. They focus on a specific concept or skill associated with the course’s learning objectives. Microlectures allow students to access instruction on a specific concept or skill they need to practice.’

The question of course will be whether we are reducing knowledge to bite-size chunks that today’s easily distracted population can manage but which convey little of analytical value, or whether we are using key issues to stimulate learning and intellectual exploration. It is all a part of the continuing need to apply genuine pedagogical insights to new forms of education.


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