Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

Professorial elitism

February 24, 2015

An interesting study undertaken recently in the United States found that over half of all tenured university lecturers in a very large sample were graduates of just ’18 elite universities’ (which in the US would be a tiny proportion of the university sector as a whole). The study concluded that access to higher education was firmly established across the country, but:

‘… Most universities are not very successful at generating professors, and most people only get doctorates because they intend to go into academia. Should these lower-prestige institutions even bother granting PhDs at all?’

There are various observations and assumptions in all of this, and they are worth analysing. First, the assumption is that people who do PhD research are generally intending to be academics. Secondly, the study observes that a small number of elite universities educate most academics. Finally, this means that the academy, as distinct from the population it teaches, is hugely elitist.  If these assumptions are correct, and moreover if they are also correct for other higher education sectors beyond the United States, they should give us some cause for concern.

I am not aware of any similar study in the UK or Ireland, but it would not be excessively difficult to undertake. I would not claim to have done anything scientific, but I have taken three universities, two in the UK and one in Ireland, and have looked at a sample of their academic staff to see what the position might be. My initial impression (and I can hardly claim more than that) is that we don’t have the same phenomenon this side of the Atlantic. All three universities would be considered to be in the middle range rather than ‘elite'; in all three a significant proportion of academics are graduates of the institution they now teach in, followed by a group who are graduates of what one might call similar institutions. Of the 100 academics I sampled across the institutions, only three were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. In fact Harvard and Stamford were better represented.

What am I concluding? First, that it might be interesting to do a more scientific study of our universities. Secondly, that if the higher education sector is to have any kind of cohesion and if it is to be successful at underpinning a reasonably egalitarian society, there should be a reasonable spread of universities whose graduates teach and research across all institutions. This is so in part because any move towards elitism will not just stay as intellectual elitism, it will quickly be social (or socio-economic) elitism also.

This is an issue to watch.

Defending the university library

February 10, 2015

Whatever challenges we may face in this part of the world, we are unlikely – or so we hope – to experience the destruction of our libraries through book burnings. However, not everyone in the world can be see confident: throughout the second half of 2014 the jihadists of Islamic State, who had captured the Northern Iraq city of Mosul, have been burning all non-Islamic books in the local university libraries. And before we get to feel superior, we must of course remember that in the 20th century this happened in Europe also. And even more recently in America, though admittedly for different reasons: in Missouri a university librarian destroyed 188,000 books because he felt they were moldy and damp.

Libraries face all sorts of challenges: they can be the first to feel the impact of budget cuts, they can experience the uncertainty some university leaders feel about whether traditional library materials are still needed or a good investment, or they can get into the news for the wrong reasons, as some students are found doing things there they shouldn’t be.

In a world in which learning methods and indeed learning habits are changing rapidly, in which demographic trends are changing many of our former assumptions, in which electronic materials are replacing hard copies, it may be difficult to develop and promote sustainable library models. But it seems clear to me that we must do so, because in the end the library is, more than anything else, the key symbol of the academy – where the source of knowledge is contained and its analysis facilitated. No matter what happens to the technology, libraries will become neither less relevant nor, it has to be said, less expensive. Universities need to ensure that they survive and prosper, not just on electronic servers, but as places in which scholars can be scholars.

How fundamental is free speech fundamentalism?

February 3, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has, particularly after the dust settled a little, prompted (as some might have expected) more detailed debate about the nature and limits of free speech in a liberal democratic society. Some of the debate, as we’ll get to in a moment, concerns free speech in an academic or university setting. But let us look first at the wider issues.

Immediately following the events in Paris there were demonstrations all over the world to reaffirm the right of journalists and commentators to offer their views, however uncomfortable or indeed offensive these might be, without having to fear for their lives. Je suis Charlie became the banner of this movement.

But not everyone joined in. The journalist Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, questioned the credentials of ‘free speech fundamentalists':

‘None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed.’

So is free speech protected only to the extent that it is not prohibited or discouraged, as that quote would suggest? If that were so, would it amount to much? And in particular, who is the arbiter of ‘taste and decency’? Is my objection to someone saying something enough to put that statement out of bounds? Do I have, as has been debated for a while now, a ‘right not to be offended’?

For those of us working in higher education, this raises particularly complex issues. Most of our institutions have, thankfully, students and staff from a large number of countries and cultures. While inviting them to learn and to engage with scholarship, we also try to present them with an hospitable and supportive environment. People away from home can be particularly vulnerable, and we should recognise that. But again, what does this mean when it comes to the substance of debate, in particular where that substance may be uncomfortable to some?

The website Spiked Online has now produced a league table of UK universities that ranks them according to their attitude to freedom of speech and to censorship. It suggests that 23 universities (including mine) have a ‘hands-off approach to free speech’, 45 have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, and 47 have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’. Those universities that do not, in the view of the compilers of this survey, support free speech have in many cases banned offensive speech or taken similar measures, such as excluding speakers from the campus where their views were not considered appropriate.

It is easy to feel that universities must not allow students and others to be made uncomfortable on the campus when others attack their beliefs or their ethos. On the other hand, universities are places where knowledge should be pursued regardless of whether that knowledge pleases or disturbs people. Censorship on the campus in one context may undermine scholarly integrity in another.

It is easy to agree with Mehdi Hasan, as I do, that some lines should not be crossed by considerate people. I would hate to offend someone’s deeply held convictions, assuming these convictions are within the law. But I would also hate to be part of something that confines academic investigation to things that do not bother anyone. Censorship on the campus is not something we should want to see grow, not least because the expression and the challenging of our opinions and views is, fundamentally, the thing that matters most in scholarship.

Handling dissent: making a meal of body language?

January 27, 2015

Universities are, as we all know, places in which a variety of different opinions can be found, often strongly expressed. At any rate, that is how it should be. Of course there needs to be strategy and direction, but there also needs to be sense of exploration and critique, in an environment that recognises this as helpful.

So what are we to make of the case where a senior academic, Professor Docherty, was suspended a year ago by Warwick University when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, he deployed such tactics as ‘sighing, projecting negative body language and making “ironic” comments when interviewing candidates for a job…’? Indeed according to another report he had even been sarcastic. The university’s contention was that he had thereby undermined the position of his (presumably also present) Head of Department.

It is of course dangerous to comment on such matters without having full inside knowledge of what happened or in what context events took place, but universities need to be sensitive to expressions of dissent, even in the form of body language, without taking dramatic actions in response. Equally, academics (and others) need to be aware of the fact that their actions and their conduct can come across as aggressive and bullying. Because universities are a forum for the exchange of ideas, they must be prepared that this involves transactions that are not always polite; but equally must try to ensure that interactions don’t become oppressive to some participants. It is a hard balance to strike.

Professor Doherty is well known for his views, many of which are highly critical of current trends in the management of universities. The university has emphasised that there is no connection between his views and the actions that were taken; this at any rate is important, because academic freedom is a vital component of university life – and so there should be, as one commentator put it, an academic ‘freedom to sigh’. Therefore it is also good advice to any university to say that where you find an academic to be sighing and projecting negative body language, the best response is probably not to suspend him or her.  Probably. But none of us get it right all of the time.

Sorry, what was that again? The problem of a limited attention span, technology-enabled

January 20, 2015

A former colleague with whom I worked in another institution a good few years ago told me recently that, about half way through a lecture, he had asked his class a question. No one responded. By this I don’t just mean that no answer was offered; there wasn’t even much evidence that the students were aware that a question had been asked of them. In fact, it turned out they were almost all focusing on their phones and tablets, because someone was live-tweeting an event in which they all had an interest. My friend suddenly realised he was talking to himself.

In this case there may have been a particular reason for the student inattention, but even in other circumstances it has become difficult to know how long students will focus on the teaching. A few years ago the BBC reported on a survey that had found that ‘the average length of time a student could concentrate for in lectures was 10 minutes’. A more recent American study had this finding:

‘The researchers observed a pattern in which the first spike in reported attention lapses occurred just 30 seconds into a lecture segment, likely reflecting the same “settling-in” period of disruption… The next consistent spike in reported attention lapses occurred at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture, followed by another spike at 7 to 9 minutes, and then another at 9 to 10 minutes into the lecture. This waxing-and-waning pattern continued throughout the lecture, with attention lapses occurring more frequently as the lecture progressed. By the end of the lecture, lapses occurred about every two minutes.’

If this pattern of attention and lapses is typical, then we would have to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of lecture-style teaching. If in addition we factor in the impact of personal technology such as smartphones and the ease with which they provide nearly indetectable access to something other than what is going on in the classroom, we would have to wonder about the possibility of significant learning taking place at all in such settings. Part of the answer is to have as much ‘active learning’ as possible: when students are asked to do something, the evidence is that they pay more attention. Part of it is probably also related to the communication skills of the teacher. But overall we need to accept that traditional teaching may not engage students much these days, and we must ensure that we employ an active assessment of pedagogy that never assumes we must always continue to do what we did before.

Finding relevance

January 13, 2015

In a recent post on this site I raised some questions about the extent to which university places should reflect national economic, social or other needs. But when it come to degree programme choices by students, there is also another dimension, one that I was reminded of when I read the recent publication by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority on the first destination of graduates after they leave higher education (What Do Graduates Do? The Class of 2013). One particular finding is interesting (page 43):

‘Of those employed in Ireland and who responded to this section of the survey, 63% of Honours Bachelor Degree graduates rated the relevance of their qualification as relevant or most relevant to their area of employment. A total of 19% rated their qualification as irrelevant/most irrelevant and 18% were unsure.’

Let us assume here that the question was understood to be about the relevance of their qualification (and not, as the above passage suggests, the relevance of the relevance). Let us assume also that the undefined term ‘relevance’ would have been understood similarly by all respondents. In that case, we are left to conclude that nearly two-thirds of students saw their degree course as being directly tied to their chosen profession, while about 20 per cent thought their studies were not connected with their employment.

This suggests on the one hand that a large number of Irish students see higher education as a vocational process, while a substantial minority do not, apparently, identify the acquisition of transferable skills or other benefits in their university studies. What strikes me here is the apparently binary nature of this assessment: my course is vocationally ‘relevant’, or it is ‘irrelevant’.

I believe in the value of vocational or professional aspects of higher education. But I also believe in the value of university studies more generally, for those who can benefit from them and are suitably qualified to learn. All university studies benefit the learner, or should do.

The value or otherwise of ‘relevance’ in higher education is one of those things we have not yet properly settled. There isn’t a straightforward answer, but there is scope for a good debate, which in turn should have some impact on how students view their studies both before they commence them and after they have entered employment. In the absence of this we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about how students, or for that matter academics, perceive relevance.

In this game is the REF to blame?

December 23, 2014

Anyone working in and around higher education in the United Kingdom will have been obsessing about the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) over the past week. According to the REF website, it is ‘the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions’. A total of 154 institutions made 1,911 submissions to this exercise, and last week they found out how they had fared. The results will influence a number of things, including league table positions of universities and public funding. They will also have reinforced a trend to focus research attention and funding on a smaller number of institutions.

REF is the successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, which in turn had been around since the 1980s. The first one of these I had to deal with was conducted in 1992, when I was Dean of the Law School of the University of Hull. While I believe I was rather successful in managing the RAE, in that my department improved hugely between 1992 and the next exercise in 1998, I now believe that most of the decisions we took were good for the RAE and bad for research. In fact, that could be the overall summary for the whole process across the country from the beginnings right up to last week’s REF.

And here are three reasons.

  1. The RAE and REF have, despite claims to the contrary, punished interdisciplinarity, because the units of assessment overwhelmingly focus on outputs within rather than between disciplines. The future of research is interdisciplinary – but academics worried about REF will be wary of focusing too much on such work.
  2. Despite the way in which it aims to reward international recognition, a key impact of the RAE/REF framework is to promote mediocrity. For funding and related reasons, many institutions will try to drive as many academics as possible into published research, spending major resources on pushing average researchers to perform – resources that should really be devoted to supporting those who have the most promise. Of course some excellent researchers have been able to thrive, but in many institutions the RAE/REF process has hindered rather than supported real excellence. On top of that it has diverted some staff from doing what they do really well into doing things they don’t much like. One of the casualties of that, incidentally, is collegiality.
  3. The RAE/REF has produced a stunning bureaucratisation of research. A key difference between research management in my last university in Ireland (where there is no such exercise) and in my current one is the extraordinary amount of time staff have to put into the tactical, operational and administrative maintenance of the REF industry. Also, I shudder to think how much time and resources institutions will have spent last week managing the news of the results. Industrial-scale bureaucracy of course also produces huge costs.

Other equally good reasons for doubting the value of REF have been given by Professor Derek Sayer of Lancaster University, writing in the Guardian.

I am not against competition in research, nor do I believe that research performance should not be monitored. But the RAE/REF process is about ranking universities rather than promoting research. I have no reason to think that anyone who matters is listening, but it is time to think again about this process.


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