Archive for the ‘society’ category

Too much higher education?

March 24, 2015

In many develop countries it has been government policy for some time to secure growing levels of participation in higher education. While I was President of Dublin City University the Irish government had a target participation rate of over 60 per cent. In the United Kingdom, under Tony Blair, the target was 50 per cent. Going for high targets is the ultimate destination in the process of ‘massification’, under which universities have ceased to be educators of the elite only and have opened their doors to those who would not in previous generations have considered this to be an accessible, appropriate or affordable route.

But not everyone thinks this is necessarily the right policy. Last year the founder of the Virgin group of companies, Richard Branson, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper:

‘Ten years ago it felt as though teenagers in Britain were being told that university was the be all and end all, whereas in reality higher education wasn’t of use to many of those paying for it.’

Branson felt that, in particular, the rush for everyone to go to university was threatening to deprive the country and the economy of people with vital skills, particularly digital skills of importance to the IT sector. These skills he felt were generally not acquired in universities, but through other forms of vocational training. This trend, if not arrested, would endanger relevant industry investment.

In other accounts, it has been suggested (in this case in the Daily Telegraph) that too many young people were being cajoled into university; and some of them would find that higher education didn’t suit them, and they would drop out.

Of course there are other issues wrapped up in this discussion, including the question of how ‘vocational’ a university education should or should not be (and therefore whether universities can or should provide some of the skills the economy may be at risk of lacking). There is the question of the ‘social value’ of higher education, and whether those not experiencing it will be, or will mostly be, relatively disadvantaged. But it may well be time to ask the question of how far university education can, or should, go.

So, when it come to university courses, are some professions more equal than others?

March 17, 2015

Irish readers of this blog will be well familiar with the complaint – and it’s an entirely justified complaint – that the so-called ‘points system’ that attaches a value to the final school (Leaving Certificate) examination results has created a completely false ‘market’ in university entry to different courses. If you want to do medicine or law you have to achieve very high points. If you wan to study computing, you need far fewer points. So, the apparent judgement is you need to be much cleverer to be a lawyer than to be a computer programmer. Speaking as a lawyer, I can categorically say that this makes no sense.

But the problem is not unique to Ireland. A senior Scottish academic, Professor Alan Gilloran of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, has now been reported as saying that ‘that society should reconsider how it views different professions’ and has called for a re-think of established hierarchies in terms of jobs. He has suggested, more specifically, that the high entry requirements for medical studies are not reasonable, because medicine ‘is plumbing, for God’s sake’.

Whether we would agree with this assessment of medicine or not, there is an important point in all of this. We need to ensure that the perceived social status of a particular profession does not – or no longer – govern the academic expectations we have of students. Society’s needs should not be made subject to social aspirations. Right now we need more engineers, biotechnologists, computer programmers, mathematicians; and these are the careers into which we should be enticing the brightest and best of the younger generation.

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.

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.

Scotland

September 19, 2014

Exactly three and a half years ago I arrived in Scotland to take up my post of Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. At the time there was a minority SNP government in Edinburgh, but within weeks the Scottish elections delivered an overall majority for Alex Salmond, and the path to a referendum on independence was set. Today we know the answer: a decisive but not overwhelming majority of Scots have opted for staying in the United Kingdom, having received a list of promises from the major UK parties of new devolved powers and responsibilities.

Scotland’s First Minister has called on the country to accept and respect the outcome, and that is a good start to the post-referendum deliberations. But the London parties will need to deliver a number of changes. Chiefly these will need to involve a much greater level of economic and fiscal autonomy, not least so that Scotland can stop being a recipient of a UK grant and instead develop a proactive and innovative economic strategy of its own, ensuring that it can be a successful innovation hub.

Universities can make a major contribution to this. During the referendum campaign one perhaps unexpected issue of contention in the political and popular debate was research funding. A number of academics expressed concerns that Scotland would lose access to UK research council funding, from which a number of the country’s universities had benefited disproportionately. I am myself all in favour of continuing UK research awards for Scottish academics, but I don’t see it as a priority in the same way. I believe that a distinct Scottish research funding framework, recognising the opportunities for successful growth in industry R&D linked to academic expertise, and recognising also the specific social and cultural needs of Scotland, would secure significant benefits.

For many who believed that independence could and would offer an exciting future for Scotland this is a disappointing day. But the energy visible over recent months on all sides of the campaign should now be harnessed to continue building a better, more successful, more innovative, more prosperous, more attractive Scotland. There is still much that can be achieved.

Scotland’s decision

September 18, 2014

I imagine that all readers of this blog know that, today, Scotland decides in a referendum whether it will remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent state. In this blog and elsewhere I have written about some of the implications for higher education of this decision, whichever way it goes.

I have written to staff of RGU in the final days before the referendum, and you can see this communication below. Right now it is my hope that as many people as possible are voting, and that the result will allow all those affected by the decision to see the future positively and with confidence. I know it will not be easy for many, but I hope that any disagreements and divisions will heal quickly.

I shall comment more on the outcome itself once it is known. Tonight I shall be at the Aberdeen counting centre, which is in my university.

As I write this, the Scottish independence referendum is 11 days away, and right now the outcome is too close to call. As I know from emails I have received from colleagues, and indeed from students, over the past few months, there are strong opinions in the RGU community on both sides of the question. That of course is how it should be, and I hope that the university has been a safe place in which to put forward views and be heard in a respectful way.

Once the votes are counted we will know what constitutional future lies ahead, though not yet exactly what form some of the more precise aspects will take. If the vote is Yes, there will be national, and indeed international, discussions and negotiations, and these will stretch over the next two years at least. If the vote is No, there will still be detailed debates about how Scottish devolution should develop. In each scenario there will be implications for universities, though I suspect these will not be dramatic either way.

I do however hope that this university, and its staff, will play an active role in the process that is to come. RGU, I believe, represents much of what is best in Scotland, and I shall seek to ensure that we are heard in the discussions that are due to take place. I hope that colleagues who have something to contribute will also be prepared to participate, and I would be happy to hear from anyone who would like to do so. But whatever your views may be, and however you feel about the referendum outcome, I hope that this will be a supportive and collegial place for you to be over the time ahead. Let us make sure that we are active and constructive contributors to plans for a bright future for all of this country’s people.

By hand

August 26, 2014

It may be worth prefacing what I am about to write with the assurance that I am certainly not a technophobe. I have always been pretty much the first adopter of any technological innovation, ahead of anyone in my peer group. I was using a word processor in 1981, I had my first PC in 1983 (and my first Macintosh in 1986), I was on the internet in 1992 and was using an iPhone and an iPad and so in the very first wave.

Why am I protesting so much? Because what I want to suggest here is that one particular form of using technology may not be ideal: taking notes on a laptop or tablet. I had started doing this some time ago, and at meetings and discussions I was always there with my laptop, and later my iPad. Then one day I was at a meeting and had forgotten to bring any of this equipment. I borrowed a piece of paper from someone and started writing by hand; and suddenly found that I was paying more attention to the meeting and getting a better quality of written note. So since then I have gone back to taking notes on paper. I digitise it afterwards, but the actual note taking is by hand. Indeed, I have even managed to recover my one time ability to write fast, a talent that had been lost due to lack of use.

Now I find that my experience may reflect a broader truth.  A professor and one of his students at Princeton University have conducted a study that has revealed that students who take notes by hand on paper during classes perform much better at subsequent tests than those using computers to take notes. It seems that the mental processes are different and therefore produce different results.

These days as I sit at meetings I notice that, usually, I am the only one to write notes by hand (though I will have an iPad to consult meeting materials). Maybe it is time for all of us to re-discover handwriting. We might even resurrect the fountain pen.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 833 other followers