Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

Bookend?

May 2, 2016

Let’s not personalise this, so no names. But a few years ago I read about a group of academics protesting at their university about some restructuring or other then taking place. Their ire was particularly directed at one of the university’s senior management team, an academic who, they claimed, didn’t have a single book in his office. More recently at another university, or so it is claimed, another member of the senior team stated openly that he didn’t see the need for a university library any more.

But it’s not just university heads and their teams. The Independent newspaper recently reported that at an English university some academics are finding it hard to persuade their students to read books. One professor suggested:

‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.’

Others have reported that Victorian literature is disappearing from the curricula of English degree courses because the novels are simply too long – nobody could be expected to read them cover to cover.

Of course it’s not just universities. A couple of years ago in America the Pew Research Center found that 23 per cent of adults had not read a single book (in whatever form, including digital and audio) in the preceding year. Some 35 years earlier that figure would have been 8 per cent.

So what is happening? Are books dead? I doubt that: in recent years there has been a drop in book sales in some countries, but more than off-set by significant increases in others. Nevertheless, people’s engagement with them is changing, and because you can read things in unusual ways and take them from unusual sources it is hard to gauge changes in reading patterns. And of course a ‘book’ is a more complex item now, as it is not necessarily something printed on paper between covers.

I would be more concerned if the choice of books we might read were all about volume and length. There is of course an important place in literature for the short story or the novella. But it is important that we take the time and make the effort to engage with ideas that occupy more than 60 pages. There may be all sorts of reasons for including or not including Charles Dickens on a university curriculum: but the fact that his books tend to be longer than 500 pages should not be one of them.

Are universities useless in supporting economic development?

April 25, 2016

We have previously considered in this blog whether university programmes of teaching and research should be aligned with economic needs, and there is a variety of views on this point. But a lecturer in St Andrews University, Dr Ross Brown, has now claimed to have discovered in his research that regardless of whether universities should do this or not, they are not effective if they do. According to a report of his research on the university’s website, Dr Brown said:

‘The strongly engrained view of universities as some kind of innovation panacea is deeply flawed. As occurred in the past when inward investment was seen as a ‘silver bullet’ for promoting economic development, university research commercialisation has been granted an equally exaggerated role in political and policy making circles. Universities are not quasi economic development agencies.’

In this short quote there are about 20 different highly arguable points, but the one Dr Brown is particularly promoting is that universities don’t materially support economic development, in that research commercialisation doesn’t have a major impact.

For a start, I don’t think I know of anyone who has ever believed that research commercialisation is the key to economic development. It is a long game, which has the capacity, often over an extended period of many years, to create value for the researchers’ institutions and for those who funded the work (often the taxpayer). When that happens – and it only happens in a minority of cases – the economic impact will often be somewhere else, typically in the place where the last major investor runs their business.

The reason why universities prompt economic development has almost nothing to do with the commercialisation of research. Universities create a cluster of intellectual capital in a place which in turn has the capacity to support the economy: skilled graduates, leadership, facilities and infrastructure, a potential for value-adding partnerships in industry R&D projects – these constitute the raw material for economic development in particular areas. Nor is it hard to find the evidence. There are truckloads of studies that show the impact on value added and economic growth contributed to regions by resident universities; indeed one such study was done by Dr Brown’s own university. There are also studies that show how some regions fail to grow economically where they do not have universities.

I must confess I have not read the original study by Dr Brown, and it may of course be that in it he pursues a quite different argument from that presented in the summary report. Even there he is quoted as recognising the impact of universities, but seems to think that this is not a critical element in assessing their capacity to stimulate growth. In reality it is crucial. The recent Aberdeen City Region Deal is almost wholly based on the capacity of the region’s universities to promote innovation. While I must declare an interest here of course, I very much doubt that the assessment is wrong.

Universities are of course not everything in the drive for economic growth. But they are a very big something.

Alphabetical fate

April 19, 2016

A good few years ago I wrote an academic paper with a colleague. We thought it was pretty good. While we did more or less equal amounts of writing, I had done most of the research and so we agreed easily that my name would come first. This was not however the view of the journal in which we wanted the piece to appear. They agreed to publish it, but insisted that my fellow author’s name had to come first.

Why was this? Was he the better academic? Was he better known in our field? Hell, was he better looking than me? None of that. His surname began with the letter ‘B’, mine with a ‘V’. That was it.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a report on research that showed that people with a name beginning with letters from A to M were more likely to earn more money than those nearer the bottom of the alphabet, more likely to be elected if they were politicians, more likely to be university leaders, more likely to win the Nobel Prize.

In my own case, I could of course argue that my surname officially (under German practice) begins with a ‘P’ rather than a ‘V’, but why bother, I end up in the lower part of the alphabet either way.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that in this most intellectual of environments – in the academy of higher education – the odds are also stacked in favour of those higher up in the alphabet. When we tell ourselves that we are always objective and uninfluenced by irrelevant factors, someone might perhaps suggest to us to think again; though ideally that someone’s name should begin with an ‘A’.

Creative dissent versus social inclusion?

April 11, 2016

For anyone interested in universities, it is worth keeping an eye on the speeches and addresses of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Right from the start of his presidency he has made regular incursions into higher education policy, and has in particular bemoaned the dominant influence as he sees it of market-oriented economic theory.

Last week he returned to this theme in a speech given at the annual conference in Galway of the European Universities Association. He suggested that policy-makers in Europe and elsewhere have this perspective on higher education:

‘[They] tend to view universities in a rather utilitarian way, as foundations of new knowledge and innovative thinking, within the confines of existing trade, commercial and economic paradigms, paradigms that are fading but not without damage to social cohesion.’

According to the President, this is the ‘language and rhetoric of the speculative market’. He added:

‘Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression.’

University studies, the President suggested, must be accompanied by the ‘capacity to dissent’.

It is not hard to find this vision of the academy to be rather enticing. But there may be a difficult fact that would compromise the vision of universities as institutions with the primary mission of stimulating creative dissent. The whole package of resources and facilities that the state or its taxpayers or indeed education’s consumers make available is provided on a rather different understanding: that a university education, and the resulting degree, will yield a recognised qualification, and through it employment, and that it will sustain economic growth and technological progress. It is fundamentally utilitarian in nature, and it is so because a university degree has become the essential foundation of growth and prosperity. If you wish to see universities as places of counter-establishment dissent and indifferent creativity, then you need to restore universities as places educating only a small minority (and probably an elite) of the population.

Scholars from medieval times to the 19th century were in a very different place, literally and metaphorically. It is most unlikely that we could (or maybe even should) detach higher education from today’s economic and social targets. But we can still ensure that its practitioners have a new and profound integrity within the fields that they address and that its students expand their minds as well as their opportunities.

How valuable is ‘prestige’?

April 4, 2016

Just over 10 years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I hosted a dinner with a small number of executives of a leading US-based multinational company. We had just signed an agreement to undertake a joint research project. As we reflected over dinner on the discussions and negotiations that had produced the agreement, the senior executive of the company said that, as a matter of company policy, they would never seek to enter into any such arrangement with any of the American Ivy League universities. You would, he said, spend too much time negotiating with people who were so in awe of the prestige of their own institution that they could not entertain rational judgements about the value of their contribution to any such deal.

That assessment probably helped us at the time. But on the other hand, a recent article in the Guardian newspaper has suggested that in the higher education landscape prestige is everything. Paul Blackmore, who is Professor of Higher Education at King’s College London, looked at the impact of prestige as perceived by those who work in or lead institutions thought to enjoy it, and found that it has a major impact. One head of such a university is quoted as saying that prestige means that ‘you don’t have to explain yourself’.

Professor Blackmore himself seems to have bought this story, though he hints at some discomfort at its impact. Other recent studies have been more sceptical. An article last year in Investopedia pointed out that the empirical evidence now suggested that the prestige of a graduate’s university mattered rather less than the student’s performance while there – and that those assessing the value of someone’s degree were now statistically more likely not to be graduates of an institution guarding its ancient privileges.

Whatever the truth may be, I would suggest that those of us not leading Ivy League or Russell Group universities should not spend too much time worrying about this one way or another. This is, or should be, the age of excellence, not of aristocracy. We can and should respect traditional institutions that have excelled over the ages, but we should not believe that they are the only models for us to follow; and much less that they are necessarily our elders and betters. The future may well be ours.

Widening access – the struggle for progress

March 22, 2016

Most people working in higher education will agree that one of the biggest crimes we can commit is to deny an education to someone with the talent and aptitude to benefit from it. It is also true to say that in 2016 more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in our universities than would have been the case, or would even have been conceivable, a generation or two ago. And yet, as the most recent report on access has reminded us, higher education ‘disproportionately benefits those in our most affiluent communities, meaning that, through accident of birth, those in our most disadvantaged communities have nothing like an equal chance to realise their potential.’

Scotland’s Commission on Widening Access, chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, has set out four guiding principles for public policy on access:

• Equal access is fundamentally about fairness
• Equal access is a social good
• Equal access is compatible with academic excellence
• Equal access is an economic good

These principles seem obvious enough until you realise that, in practice, much of the system doesn’t support them. Academics worry about standards, middle class parents worry about their children being displaced, funding and resources don’t sufficiently target disadvantage. Too many people believe it’s all a matter of free tuition, when almost all of the evidence shows that fees are not the main barrier to widening access.

The Commission chaired by Dame Ruth makes a number of very interesting and potentially exciting recommendations (to some of which I shall return in future), but perhaps the one that will be seen as most difficult is this:

‘By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately re ects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.’

This recommendation is about contextual admissions, under which minimum attainment thresholds are set for each course to ensure that students are able to manage the syllabus, but with a recognition that there should be some compensation at the point of entry for applicants who have come from less well resourced schools. In other words, entry requirements for access students should be lower than for other applicants, while maintaining the basic thresholds.

A university education is not as right per se. But having the same opportunity of access to it regardless of background is a right, and a civilised society should ensure that it is protected. Contextual admissions are an indispensable tool in progressing to such a society. I hope that this recommendation will be debated and the best approach assessed; but I hope it will not be resisted.

Humanities and science: an unequal competition?

March 1, 2016

Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was discussed last year in the Observer newspaper by the writer Alex Preston. He argued that an attack on the humanities set in under Margaret Thatcher, who attempted to centralise control over universities:

‘She asserted more government power over the universities in an attempt to strong-arm them into complying with her vision of an entrepreneurial, vocational education system.’

According to Preston this has led today to a culture of higher education bureaucracy that spends (wastes?) money on ‘bureaucrats hired to manage the transformation of universities from centres of learning to profit centres.’ In this world the humanities are an immediate target because they are ‘less readily yoked to the needs of the corporate world.’

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. In the meantime one of the welcome developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research.

So is there really a war against the humanities? It is probably unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth and benefits. But it is also vital that the university sector overall demonstrates – and is encouraged and funded to demonstrate – the value of the humanities, arts and social sciences. For this to be done satisfactorily, the value and ethos of higher education as a whole needs a more principled expression than it now often gets. That may be the first task to be addressed. And if I may be permitted a bit of self-indulgence, there are worse places to start the reflection than in the introduction to the report of the 2012 review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland (which I chaired).


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