Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

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.

Demonstrating the value of higher education

June 2, 2015

One of the most disagreeable experiences during my time as President of Dublin City University was attending a debate in Dáil Eireann (Irish Parliament) on higher education, about ten years ago now. The topic of the debate was higher education, and more particularly whether universities were receiving adequate funding. One after another, TDs (members of the Parliament) got up and read from (or more usually recited from memory) letters they said they had received from members of the public complaining of waste and malpractice in the institutions.

But there was also another theme running through the contributions: that universities were receiving huge sums of public money, and that this lavish expenditure was not producing any impact. The country had huge economic and social needs but the universities – so the claim went – were not making much of a contribution to their resolution.

As I have noted previously and elsewhere, it is of vital importance that universities seek and maintain the confidence of wider stakeholder groups; not doing so endangers our sustainability. But on this occasion what was going through my mind was how little the country’s legislators understood the benefits society derived from universities; not just in terms of the wider education provided, but in the discoveries and innovation coming out of higher education institutions that powered the economy and secured social progress. If we are really measuring impact, it is huge.

Virtually all universities can demonstrate a dramatic impact. The scale of this is demonstrated by the ‘impact case studies’ that have been published in the aftermath of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. My own university, for example, is shown to have provided benefits to society in areas such as artists working in the public sphere, good practice in the treatment of asylum seekers, mental health needs of people affected by disasters or major incidents, obesity management, data-driven decision-making, energy and the environment, and so forth. Other examples are shown in respect of pretty much every UK university.

Ten years ago I wanted to stand up and tell the parliamentarians that they could make few better and more impact-driven investments of public money than in higher education. That is still very much true ten years on.

Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage

May 25, 2015

As most readers will undoubtedly know, Ireland voted on Friday last week on whether to amend the country’s Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937) to include in the article on the family the following sentence:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

As was widely reported, two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the amendment, thereby placing an obligation on the government and parliament (Oireachtas) to introduce legislation legalising and protecting same-sex marriage, alongside the continuing protection for heterosexual marriage.

The relatively decisive support given to gay marriage by the Irish voters is noteworthy, not least because the country has come a long way quickly. When I was an undergraduate student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s such a profound change would have seemed a very long way off, if indeed it seemed achievable in any timescale at all. However, TCD was probably the main hotbed for the emerging issue. One of its academic staff was David Norris, one of the few people at the time to have been brave enough to declare themselves gay and to bring the issue to the public’s attention. Back then the public was probably overwhelmingly hostile, but inside TCD David Norris was given the opportunity to make his case and to do so publicly.

Over the years that followed others in TCD, and other universities also, became vocal advocates for change. These included two academics destined to become Presidents of the state – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

It should not be thought that universities are dedicated exclusively to progressive liberal values, nor should it be assumed that every novel idea championed by an academic should one day reflect the outlook of our national community. But it is right that higher education institutions should host and nurture opinions not at the time fashionable in wider society, and to protect those who wish to express unpopular views. In this case the big and welcome change last week carried through by Irish voters was made possible by the courage and persistence of academics, and by the university culture that gave them space to play their role. May this always be possible.

Is the accessible university an unwelcoming one?

May 12, 2015

Ever since higher education ceased to be the classroom of the elite, questions have been raised from time to time about how accommodating universities are to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of these students will not have attended schools in which a degree is seen as the natural culmination of a young person’s formation, they will have grown up in families in which there is no experience of (and sometimes not much sympathy for) university life, they will have peers and role models whose success (where that has been achieved) will often owe little to any programme of study. So what impact do such students have on the university, and how will the university appear to them in turn?

One university warned in 2012 that requiring it to admit access students might force it to ‘lower its academic standards'; more recently the same university suggested, according to a newspaper report, that ‘moves to recruit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is discriminating against the middle classes’.

In America there are sometimes still more robust criticisms of initiatives to bring the disadvantaged into higher education. A conservative website recently argued that ‘intellectual damage’ is inflicted by ‘forcing the university to admit academically ill-prepared minority students’ – in this case using a survey conducted by the University of Illinois-Urbana.

What all this shows is that the case for inclusive higher education needs to be made and regularly re-made. Of course universities need to trade in intellectual excellence, but there is very little evidence that when they mainly educated the social elite their capacity for scholarship and discovery was greater. There is in fact very little evidence to back the suspicion that access students lower standards; in my experience they often outperform those from a more traditional higher education background.

Non-traditional students from disadvantaged backgrounds will only be problematic if the system does not properly support them. They have the same intellectual capacity for curiosity and scholarship, but need to be supported in nurturing and developing it. A higher education system that wants to include greater numbers of access students needs to have the resources to support these, a point that is not always understood by policy-makers. But given such resources, universities will find that these students will enrich their intellectual life and create a body of graduates who will both thrive in their careers and lives and be particularly loyal supporters of their alma mater. Access is not just a good cause, it is an enriching one.

The right time to make an enlightened career choice?

April 27, 2015

Young people today go through various stages of their educational formation at which they, or someone on either behalf, make choices that will have a clear effect on the trajectory of their careers. At school they decide which subjects to take or keep taking – they lose mathematics, they lose a whole array of potential choices. They choose a university, they choose a course. And before they have any real experience of life they have often painted themselves into a corner of life from which they can no longer escape.

This has become so complex that ever more detailed advice needs to be given at an ever earlier age – as was done by the Russell Group of UK universities in a guide to post-16 subject choices:

‘It is really important that students do not disadvantage themselves by choosing a combination of subjects at A-level which will not equip them with the appropriate skills and knowledge for their university course or which may not demonstrate effectively their aptitude for a particular subject.’

Do we force specialisation on students too early, and do we help them to make intelligent choices? One contribution to this debate was made recently by the Chief Executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, who in a debate in Trinity College Dublin on enlightenment values suggested the following:

‘It is hardly in line with principles of the Enlightenment to force students into narrower and narrower subject choice options and deny them a broad first year experience with a focus on developing critical thinking and analytical skills.’

It is an interesting comment, but it is set against a backdrop of trends not in keeping with the ideal; and in particular, the trend to shorten higher education programmes – which in turn makes it much more difficult to have a liberal arts approach to the early stages of higher education – and the trend of turning secondary schools into the ante-chamber of higher education, rather than a forum for intellectual formation in its own right, using its own principles.

There is of course no single correct answer to the question in the title. But there are some wrong answers. Fording specialisation on young people at too early an age is one of them; not least because if we do so, the choices will often not be made by them, but for them. And that is wrong.


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