Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

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.

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Work-based learning and higher education diversity

October 8, 2018

In 2011 the Higher Education Academy in the UK published An Introduction to Work-Based Learning. This was not so much an analysis, but more a guide to assist institutions wanting to introduce such learning methods. The document based its definition of work-based learning on a previous study (Boud and Solomon):

‘a class of university programmes that bring together universities and work organizations to create new learning opportunities in workplaces.’

There are several possible models for such programmes, but outlining them is not my purpose here. My own two previous universities (Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University) have significant and ambitious work-based learning policies, and have had some considerable success in making such learning available to students. RGU is a founding partner of Scotland’s Centre for Work-Based Learning, which describes itself as a ‘national organisation driving cultural change and creating demand for work-based learning in Scotland.’

I have been and am a huge supporter of work-based learning, but it is important to understand that an institution adopting it as a learning tool is expressing a certain view about the nature and purpose of higher education. This in turn raises issues about whether all higher education is based on just one concept of learning and one uniform expectation of learning outcomes, or whether individual institutions can legitimately express a diversity not just of mission but of operational practice.

All of this is of course closely connected with debates about higher education and skills: whether universities are in the business of upskilling students through more vocational education, or not. Mostly this debate has been conducted on the apparent understanding that, whatever it may look like, there should be one model of higher education, and we need to work out which particular understanding of skills and work are inherent in this model.

A much better approach would be to accept – or even seek and celebrate – diversity of mission. Not all universities need to offer work-based learning. This should depend on mission and strategy. But it is counter-productive to suggest that there is one right approach for everyone, or that one model is more valuable than another, or that the same culture needs to permeate all universities. It is time to diversify the system.

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..

The academic life – student emails

August 27, 2018

When I began any lecturing career in 1980, in the days before the internet or even mobile phones, it would have been totally impossible for a student to reach me outside of normal working hours. By the time my active teaching came to an end (in 2000), I was beginning to get both emails and phone calls into the night; though this was still a relatively rare thing, and almost always the students were polite when they reached me.

It became clear to me how much had changed when a colleague from another institution contacted me recently to ask me for advice, as he was seriously stressed with the number of student emails he was receiving; in particular because many of these were, he claimed, insistent in nature. He showed me some of the offending messages, and indeed it might almost be said that a small number of them adopted a bullying tone.

It’s not a unique problem, and some academics – such as here – have suggested guidelines for responding to student emails. One has to strike the right balance of course. Higher education teaching and learning is an interactive process, and we should not be discouraging students from using contemporary methods of communication. Universities should be student-centred institutions.

Equally learning how to use emails or other online tools appropriately should be part of the student experience, and academics should not be hesitant to point out where it is not being done to good effect or in an offensive manner. Students, like everyone else, may not always realise how their online communications come across to the reader.

But those academics who become stressed by their experience should do what my friend did: contact someone who can advise and perhaps offer practical help. Responding irritably or even aggressively is almost certainly never a good idea. Get help.

A presidential view: university metrics and the rise of mediocrity?

July 9, 2018

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has not been reluctant to enter contentious debate during the course of his term of office to date. Most recently, at the launch of the Cambridge University Press History of Ireland, the President offered the following view on universities as comfortable hosts for academic studies:

‘Within the universities, humanities have borne the brunt of the vicissitudes of new funding models, as resources are increasingly channelled towards areas which, it is suggested, will yield a return, at least in the short-term, to the university in terms of increased funding. Much of this is facilitated by an abuse of metrics; an ideological fad that views the use of metrics of academic work, not as a contribution or an instrument of knowledge but as a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity.’

The President has of course on previous occasions offered a similar analysis of the direction of higher education, and it is also clear that his view has support amongst a good number of academics; this article in the Irish Times is a good example. The English Campaign for the Public University also offers very similar views.

There is in such campaigns sometimes an element of irritation that taxpayer funding should come with strings attached, and in so far as this is part of the complaint it cannot easily be upheld. There are few areas of public life supported by exchequer funds that can still expect to be outside of value-for-money scrutiny, however lofty the objectives of the funded bodies. What is perhaps a better focus of analysis would be what strings can acceptably be attached to educational funding, and of course the more general question of what kind and volume of public funding is required or justifiable.

The resistance to outcome-driven funding as a matter of principle is, I would think, bound to fail: the spirit of the age is against such resistance. The better argument would be about what outcomes are an appropriate subject of targeting and monitoring. For example, is it justifiable to reject targets for socio-economic inclusion in higher education (the access agenda)? Should research performance be entirely a matter of individual choice? How much weight do we give student opinion on quality and content of courses?

These are complex questions, but probably not questions that should be dismissed with charges of a subversion of higher education by neoliberal ideologues. Rather they are questions of policy that have never got to be the subject of agreement between the wider academy, their leaders, and government. Universities will never be run again as they were in the late 19th century; nor should they be, as they catered solely for a social elite. So we need to find a new social contract between the academy and the taxpayer. That is now the task.

President Higgins is right to raise these matters. But the ensuing debate needs to be conducted outside the trenches of hardened opinion. On all sides.

The mental health imperative

July 3, 2018

When I was a student in the 1970s, almost nobody ever mentioned mental health. And yet, I knew several students with anxiety and depression, who often found it difficult to share their problems with anyone, and who had pretty much no support they could call upon within the system. At least one of them was unable to complete their course, and struggled with these problems for many years subsequently.

Now, in 2018, the problem is at least increasingly recognised, though whether we are close to providing mental health and wellbeing care and support for all those in higher education is another matter. What is clear is that the pressures on students are increasingly intense and many find it difficult to cope. Staff on the other hand need what the charity Student Minds calls ‘mental health literacy’.

NUS Scotland has recently adopted a Charter for Student Rights on Mental Health. This sets out ten basic rights for students based on clearly identified need. Some of the problems identified by the NUS included the impact of internet trolling, inadequate availability of counselling, special problems encountered by LGBT students, and growing suicide numbers.

The NUS initiative is to be welcomed, and individual universities and colleges all need to prioritise mental wellbeing also. My own institution, Robert Gordon University, recently concluded a Student Mental Health Agreement with our Students’ Union, which will, I hope, provide an effective framework for support where it is needed. There is still much to be done.

The most important thing is not to ignore mental health and wellbeing, and not to let any members of the university community feel they have nowhere to go and nobody to support them. This is where we have to start.

The skills debate – an intervention from South-East Asia

June 26, 2018

In a recent post on this blog I looked at the developing discussion around skills, and how universities should respond. In the meantime, Singapore’s Education Minister,¬†Ong Ye Kung, has suggested that the city state should have a multi-pathway model of post-secondary education and training. Part of this will be run through a new state agency called SkillsFuture, which is offering high-potential qualifications not involving a university degree.

There is an additional point to be observed in Singapore’s approach. The Minister wants schools to stream pupils ‘according to their inclinations’ regarding science, creative arts or IT. The idea behind the Minister’s approach is to stabilise careers. The general assumption is most developed countries is that those entering the labour force in future will not remain with one employer but will have a ‘portfolio’ of careers. The Minister does not want this for Singapore’s workforce.

All of this indicates again that the debate about skills, education and training has really only just begun, and governments, their agencies and educational institutions may not all be making the same assumptions and pursuing the same pedagogical goals. Indeed whether this matters is not yet clear either.