Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

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.

Doing it in style?

June 30, 2015

Most academics get to where they are without receiving professional advice. By that I mean, they may have mentors, departments heads, supervisors and all such helpful folk; but they won’t tend to turn to a professional consultant in planning or developing their careers. But there are such people, and one of them is Karen Kelsky, who runs the website The Professor Is In. There she advises people on interview techniques, on writing skills, on preparing for retirement, and other such matters.

She also offers advice on what to wear. In an article just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kelsky makes suggestions on how to present yourself to greatest advantage at an academic interview. The article comes with photographs from what looks like a model shoot.

Am I sneering (as some academics might, I suspect)? Absolutely not. Kelsey remarks in her piece, with some understatement, that ‘academia doesn’t prioritise fashion’. It certainly doesn’t. And I’m not at all sure that this suggests integrity and seriousness of purpose, as some probably feel it does.

Some years ago I was at an academic conference, and found myself looking for a friend and colleague at the reception just before the main conference dinner. I couldn’t see my friend, but as I scanned the crowd it suddenly occurred to me that – how shall I put this – the majority of those present had not exactly made an effort to dress nicely for the event. The de rigueur uniform for the men was an open shirt – generally coloured in some shade of beige – and a pair of jeans, or corduroys for the very adventurous. Their hair was slightly too long, and generally hadn’t been washed in honour of the event. More of the women had made an effort, but in a fairly demure kind of way. And then suddenly the crowds parted, and in walked a visiting American female scholar, all easy charm, immaculate hair and make-up, in a designer dress. She walked about between the academics, clearly charming both the men and the women. She talked earnestly but also with flashes of wit. So was this an interloper trivialising the whole intellectual thing? Or was this someone making effective use of what has been called ‘erotic capital’ (a term originally coined by Adam Isaiah Green of the University of Toronto in his 2008 article ‘The Social Organization of Desire’, and popularised by the British academic Catherine Hakim)?

The reality is that style is a form of communication. We are saying something when we dress, or when we decorate our homes, buy our cars, choose our coffee shops or bars. We may not be saying whatever it is we want to disseminate in our academic mission, but we are creating a background that will sometimes make people more or less open to our message. The academy has, I suspect, never quite worked out whether it accepts the legitimacy of packaging of any sort. But then again, the person in rather worn clothes with chalk marks all over them, hair and beards out of control and leather elbow patches is also coming in a package; whether it is one that will help disseminate the message may be another matter.

The inevitable triumph of bad ideas?

June 15, 2015

The contemporary narrative of higher education leaves open a number of questions about how universities could or should develop. But there are certain assumptions that are, at least by implication, generally considered to be indisputable: that institutions must cut costs (and staff costs in particular); that technology will determine both pedagogy and education policy; that public money will be less and less important as a source of revenue.

Is this picture of the future of higher education inevitable? Joshua Kim, the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, thinks not. In an interesting blog post published by Inside Higher Education, he suggests that many of these assumptions are simply ‘bad ideas’ that we should reject.

Whether he is right or wrong about individual items in his list (and I for one don’t agree with him about all of them), it is clear that too much of higher education policy planning is based on an unwillingness to question current received wisdom, rather than on a considered view of what will happen or needs to happen. The rush towards MOOCs was an example of this phenomenon.

It is quite possible to argue that some of Dr Kim’s ‘bad ideas’ are not that bad. But the implication of his list – that nothing is right just because important people say it is – is sound. The critical driver of higher education policy, as indeed of all policy, should be evidence. No idea should be accepted as inherently right without further critical examination. Universities should live by the methods they teach.

Being disciplined

June 8, 2015

In an interesting comment on one of the posts from this blog, Dr Greg Foley (of my old university, DCU) argued as follows:

‘My view is that when people are immersed in a discipline and they gradually acquire the basic knowledge and skills of that discipline, they acquire the ability and the confidence to become critical thinkers – in that discipline. To extend that critical thinking ability into other realms requires further study to gain the requisite discipline-specific knowledge and skill.’

In fact, how we address disciplines, and the extent to which we allow, encourage or insist on ‘interdisciplinarity’ has become one of the major questions of higher education over recent years. Research projects and centres, and increasingly university courses, have tackled topics that cross one or more disciplinary boundaries – something that would have been very rare when I was a student.

Nevertheless, this is not exactly a new issue. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was born nearly 370 years ago. He was a mathematician, a philosopher, a lawyer, a scientist, an alchemist, a theologian, an inventor, an archivist, an historian and a political scientist – and maybe other things besides. He was German, but he wrote in Latin and French. He strayed across the different disciplines and activities with consummate ease.

But what would we make of Leibniz today? Would we admire his eclectic scholarship, or would we suspect him of dumbing everything down? Would we see him as the typical modularisation project, with all its benefits and risks?

There are few who would still dispute that many of the world’s problems can only be resolved by people who are able to engage different areas of knowledge in order to reach a coherent analysis and propose solutions. But it is also common to hear doubts expressed about the intellectual integrity of interdisciplinary teaching and research, and the charge that it involves superficial analysis.

It may well be true true that scholars need to have a good grounding in the disciplines they wish to study. But we need to ensure that specialisation is achieved within a broader context, including an understanding of relevant knowledge from other areas; and not just adjacent areas, but from across the whole spectrum. For example, addressing questions of ethics is becoming increasingly important for discovery in science. In any case, we need to remember that ‘disciplines’ are relatively arbitrary constructs, and that it is perfectly possible to have deep learning and scholarship by addressing issues within different boundaries. Some subject areas now described as ‘disciplines’ are in themselves new amalgamations of what were previously discrete areas, such as biotechnology, or indeed economics. It is not that long ago that only philosophy, theology and mathematics were accepted as true disciplines.

We could therefore do worse than looking again at some of the great polymaths of past ages, including Gottfried von Leibniz, and ask whether their approach to knowledge was in fact rather modern by our current standards. We might ask whether our higher education programmes are still too much constrained by subject area boundaries, and whether as a result our graduates do not find it as easy as they should to address the problems facing society. And we should ask how we can protect intellectual integrity and rigour in that setting.

For what it is worth, Leibniz received another interesting accolade: he had a biscuit named after him.


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