Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

The Last Post

April 30, 2019

Nearly eleven years ago, in June 2008, I published my first post on this blog. Just a little earlier I had joined Facebook and Bebo (remember that?), and I was about to join Twitter. I was at the time President of Dublin City University, and I had become convinced that university heads needed to be more visible to those whose lives they affected, whether faculty or students. They should come clean about their views so that these could be challenged or discussed, and indeed so that there could be conversation and debate about the strategic educational, cultural and social role of the university and the wider sector.

So here we are, then – 2,318 posts and some one-and-a-quarter million views later, and I’m trying to figure out how much of it ever mattered. Well, nothing in this blog changed the world, and I’m afraid it didn’t start a trend. Some university heads now use social media (and many of these use it more wisely than I did), but few present their views in detail and invite comment, which is what I hoped might follow. But if it didn’t change the world, it did get noticed: over these 11 years this blog has been quoted in newspapers and magazines around the world, in at least 12 countries. And as is absolutely appropriate, it has been criticised here and there, with someone quite reasonably suggesting that it was all ‘unbelievable drivel’ written by someone with an ‘incredible ego’. Who could argue with that?

Well, you may have noticed that I have framed all this in the past tense – this will be the last post. I retired from university leadership eight months ago, and what I might say now would be increasingly uninformed. There are other interests and goals that I am now pursuing, and while I will continue to watch what happens in higher education (and may occasionally tweet), it seems a little silly to think that I have something especially valuable to say about it. So there will be no new posts published here, though the blog, as long as WordPress continues, will remain online.

I am grateful to the unexpectedly large number of people who have read this blog or subscribed to it, and to those who occasionally wrote guest posts for it. I am grateful to the many people who wrote comments – over 16,000 comments were contributed. I have learnt from these and occasionally changed decisions on the basis of comments here that had persuaded me. I am more grateful still to the many women and men who work in higher education, as students, teachers, scholars, information professionals, support workers, technicians and others. I have noted from time to time that most of these people do not get the credit they deserve, and unfortunately they often do not get the support and security that reinforces integrity and freedom.

I may, in time, reach for my pen (or my keyboard) to start another blog; but if I do it will be on topics other than higher education. But as I leave this blog behind, here are my hopes for universities and the higher education community: that there will be a greater appreciation of the value of our institutions; that they will have access to the resources that will sustain scholarship and learning; that people studying and working in higher education will be given the respect and working conditions that is their due; that there will be no abuse of power or bullying in future; that no one will ever again feel abandoned and lost in the system to the extent that they despair of life; that scholars will continue to change the world with their discoveries and critiques; that universities will engage still more with the wider communities that they serve; that university leaders exercise (perhaps to a greater extent than I always did) a degree of humility and recognise the value of collegiality.

When I demitted office as President of Dublin City University in July 2010, I said in my farewell address to the DCU community that, in the end, we manage best when we remain optimistic. So that is my parting wish to all of you who engage in higher education: that you will always end up believing that the values of higher education will win. We have to believe that.


And again: what is higher education actually for?

February 28, 2019

There is a wonderful caricature of higher education, Microcosmographia Academica, which was written in 1908 by the Cambridge classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford. In this, with his tongue somewhat in cheek, he offered advice to the aspiring young academic. Much of it will not seem dated to contemporary readers. Amongst the nuggets of advice is this:

‘The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and ‘sound scholar’ is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called ‘brilliant’ and forfeit all respect.’

Cornford is said to have inspired some of the dialogue in the BBC series Yes Minister, which indeed also offered some analysis of the academy in some of its episodes. Not that we need to look outside the universities to find a cocked eyebrow at what goes on inside – there novels of David Lodge are but one example. But are we really all so cynical about higher education, and does this matter?

It does matter, because all joking aside, higher education matters. And the moment you say that, everyone goes off in search of the one true purpose, meaning and objective of the university system, something that can be boiled down enough to satisfy both Cornford’s Cambridge and Laurie Taylor’s Poppleton University.

There are many reasons why universities struggle so much to get proper public and official support (not excluding the preference of policymakers for anecdotal rather than empirical evidence when they go forth to bash institutions), but one of them is that all of higher education cannot work to the same vision and strategy, nor should it. But if we pretend that it does, or manoeuvre excessively to make it seem that way, we open up all sorts of chasms of incredulity that separate universities from their hinterland of natural support. We also slide into increasing discontent by members of the academy itself, as the very compelling article recently in the Irish Times by my former DCU colleague Greg Foley sets out.

Universities, individually even more than in higher education sectors as a whole, need to discover or re-discover a sense of mission that works specifically for them and is shorn of the cynicism that often accompanies such exercises, and to remember that this mission, whatever exact form it takes, is all about the educational, social, scientific, cultural and scientific empowerment of societies; which is what unites all of higher education.

In his advice to the young academic, Cornford offered the following insight:

‘There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.’

That’s a good place to start.

The rise of the ‘smart university’?

January 15, 2019

A few years ago for this blog, I interviewed the then Irish Minister for Education and Science, Ruairi Quinn. He was one of those relatively rare examples of an education minister with a real understanding of and sympathy for higher education, and indeed a set of civilised and cultured values.

However, at the time he was trying to think through what needed to change in the university system, and he offered the following thought. If one were to take an early 20th century surgeon, he suggested, and transfer him to a 21st century operating theatre, all he would be able to do that would be of any use would be to mop the patient’s brow and sweep the floor. Take a professor from that era and put him in a 21st century lecture theatre, and he would mostly feel at home and get on with the lecture. So, what had happened, or not happened, that made universities so immune to the passage of time?

One could of course argue, and indeed argue emphatically, with his premise. Most 21st century university lecture venues contain all sorts of new technology, not least the screen with its egregious Powerpoint slides. Our 20th century academic would have been astonished at, and probably not that pleased with, all the paperwork and audit trials and so forth. He (and it would be ‘he’) would have noticed a much better (though not perfect) gender balance. But then again, if in his home era he had just purchased and read F.M. Cornford’s 1908 book, Microcosmographia Academica, he might well have found that much of its satire on academic life was totally apposite a hundred years later. The argument might therefore be that the technology and bureaucracy and demographics had changed, but the basic methodology and the academic outlook had not; or something like that.

It is in this context that I wonder about concepts such as the ‘smart university’, which has been explored in recent literature such as the book Smart Education and e-Learning 2016, by Vladimir Ustov et al (Springer Verlag). The authors explore the concept of the smart university and suggest that it must have a number of key elements to quality as such, these being adaptation, sensing, inferring, self-learning, anticipation, self-organisation and configuration, restructuring and recovery. They see the new university as being technology-driven with far fewer boundaries between branches of scholarship, reflected also in more fluid structures.

As we look into the higher education future, we are bound to experience some tension between a defence of intellectual integrity and intellectual autonomy on the one hand, and a system that is driven by new concepts of knowledge acquisition and processing on the other. What impact will this have, and what are the implications for higher education regulation? What  will it do to the student experience, and even more importantly, to the graduate’s understanding of what she or he has experienced and acquired in their studies? Perhaps of equal importance, can this democratise knowledge (and undermine the value of elite networks), or will it support societal authoritarianism?

The future of universities is, for all sorts of reasons, one of the most important topics for society in the coming era.

What next for universities?

January 8, 2019

From 1978 to 2018 – in other words, for 40 years – I worked for universities. Throughout these years universities seemed to experience both great advances and great crises. Student numbers grew exponentially, as it became public policy to make higher education much more inclusive. Research budgets became significant as indicators of excellence. Whole regions were transformed by university growth in their midst.

And then again I remember the unrelenting higher education budget cuts in Ireland in the 1980s, the ‘efficiency gains’ (also cuts) in England in the 1990s, the bureaucratisation of systems through quality frameworks, the impact of the global recession of 2008 and subsequent years. But perhaps the trend that I hated most was some influential people’s tendency to criticise universities as remote institutions of elitist privilege, often assisted by folksy anecdotes allegedly demonstrating university inadequacies. All this produced an equally questionable defensiveness in the sector, which sometimes defended the indefensible just as readily as the unjustly vilified.

So this new year, 2019, has not begun well. Recent analysis has shown that the higher education funding framework in England has produced problems for the sector, and reforms hinted at by government may generate a major financial crisis. It is being asked whether graduates really always derive a benefit from university degrees. In Ireland the role of the funding agency, the Higher Education Authority, is being questioned.

It all feels odd to me now, watching these developments from the outside. But right now it is more important than ever to identify an up-to-date purpose for higher education, a framework for its resourcing, and a secure way of protecting both its integrity and its autonomy. This will be one of the key themes of this blog in 2019.

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.

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..