Archive for the ‘university’ category

The academic network

September 28, 2015

No doubt the internet creates challenges for academic integrity, but it also provides interesting tools for scholarship. One of these (founded in 2008) is the website, which allows academics to upload their published or unpublished work and get readers, citations and comments. It is intended partly as a tool for academic interaction and the exchange of ideas – a worldwide network of colleagues and contacts one might previously have found only in one’s immediate circle of collaborators.

The publishing house Sage has also created an academic networking site, Methodspace (mainly, I suspect, as a prospecting tool to find promising authors).

More mainstream social networking sites also contain pages that link particular groups of academics.

It has often been suggested that, for many academics, the primary community to which they belong is not their institution but their discipline. As a lawyer, for example, I am often more connected with law academics in other universities than, say, biochemists in my own. As it becomes easier and easier to network with these colleagues across the world, will this further loosen institutional cohesion? This is one of the challenges facing universities today, one that makes it important to present faculty with opportunities to link across disciplines and promote a sense of institutional relevance.

A global academic community is one of the real benefits of today’s technology, and should be celebrated. But a university that is able to bind together its members in an overall purpose is also still important, particularly as cross-disciplinary insights become more and more relevant to global problems. Universities need to be able to work with both dimensions.

Bingo, it’s a cliché

September 15, 2015

As academics all over the Northern hemisphere usher in the new academic year and all its activities, they will no doubt be enjoying the new round of committee meetings. One way of passing the time at these, according to an American website, is to play a game of bingo that spots various clichés and behaviour patterns. Some of it is very familiar on this side of the Atlantic, some of it less so (do people here talk about ‘the guy with the short shorts’?).

So perhaps we need our own bingo cards. I’m open to relevant entries.

Parental care

September 7, 2015

A few years ago I recruited a very impressive American to work for my university. As could be expected, he encountered a number of cultural issues in his new place of work, but most of them he was able to deal with appropriately. One that he found particularly difficult, however, was our reluctance to engage in any way the parents of our actual or prospective students, except during university open days. He was used to parents being a key stakeholder group with whom universities would engage on a regular basis, keeping them informed of their daughters’ or son’s progress and of the university’s plans and achievements. We did no such thing. Indeed if parents contacted us about their children, we would routinely tell them, politely I hope, that we could not discuss them with ‘third parties’ – a category that included parents.

I confess that I have felt particularly committed to this approach because, often, parents tended to push their children in all the wrong directions, in particular by pressing them to do courses because of the social standing this would give their offspring (rather than choosing courses to fit the children’s talents and interests).

And yet of course parents are a genuine stakeholder group. Their influence in the choice of university and courses is usually significant, and of course the years that follow often see parents having to make major financial investments in their children, even where there are no tuition fees. The role that parents play is now often recognised and promoted. And to return to America, some universities there now contact parents when students misbehave.

Perhaps we need to think again and to strike a more reasonable balance between the correct recognition of the personal autonomy of students and the legitimate interest of parents (though perhaps less so in the case of mature students). Or perhaps that interest is better expressed in communications between the students and their families, without university involvement? Even if that is so, involving parents in discussions about institutional strategy and priorities cannot be a bad thing.

The never-ending accumulation of courses? Or no change at all?

September 1, 2015

Recently the University of Stirling is reported to have indicated that ‘consideration is being given’ to ‘the sustainability of religious studies’, one of its courses. Current students are being assured that they will be able to complete their studies, but apparently there are no guarantees beyond that. This news has led to a number of actions, including a petition, and statements of support for the continuation of the course from various prominent people. And of course there is a lively social media campaign. Some of the efforts to stop the closure can be viewed here.

Stirling University itself does not seem to have offered any comment at all – certainly the news section of its website makes no reference to the issue; and that may not be an ideal way of communicating. However, it is not my intention to critique the decision, not least because I know nothing about the university’s reasons, or even intentions. But there is a wider issue here that universities have to grapple with: at a time of limited resources and income, how can any institution develop and innovate if it cannot let go anything it has already accumulated?

Times change, knowledge changes, resources change, fashions change, demand changes – and all of this must produce changes over time in a university’s offering. Too often, however, what this means is that universities offer new courses and programmes while also holding on to everything they have already got, even where demand for some has dropped. Every so often statistics are released showing that specific courses continue with tiny numbers.

Universities are often quite bad at discontinuing things – which realistically they must do; but then again, when they try, they often face howls of protest from within and without the institution. In 2010 Middlesex University decided to close its Philosophy department, a move that led immediately to an outcry and the attendant petitions. How can such steps then be taken? Or if they cannot, is it in practice not acceptable for a university to re-envision what it does?

Stirling University may be right or may be wrong to consider closing religious studies (if indeed it is doing that), and Middlesex University may have been wrong in 2010 (as I suspect it was). And yet, you cannot keep a university alive and well without taking some difficult decisions from time to time. We do not seem to be able to work out how to do that, and do it with the support and consent of the wider community of stakeholders. This is something that we will need to get better at.

The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

August 24, 2015

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.

From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity

August 17, 2015

Back in the early 1990s, a British trade union developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed to be offensive to anyone with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, and before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one or two more of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

It is sometimes suggested that this kind of over-sensitivity has reached university campuses. In an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set out a fairly disturbing picture of American universities being subjected to increasing pressure not to let anyone say anything that could possibly offend or disturb someone of a very thin-skinned disposition. Examples given are pressure applied not to teach rape law in a law school, or not to make English literature students read The Great Gatsby (because it ‘portrays misogyny and physical abuse’). With this a (to me at least) new concept has been introduced: that of the ‘microaggression’. This is described as ‘small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless’ – such as asking someone from an ethnic minority where they were born.

It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them. But this should not mean encouraging people to make a great effort to find things offensive. Universities need to prepare students for the world, and it is a world in which they cannot be protected from such stuff at all times. Furthermore, the university must maintain a culture of curiosity and inquiry, which should not be restricted just because in some contexts not everything is completely lovely. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, if this approach is abandoned it will damage students both intellectually and mentally.

Respect and sensitivity must be part of any university’s framework of values. But at the same time, universities are there to challenge and  stimulate. This task becomes impossible if every innocuous statement has to be examined again and again before it is made, in case somebody unexpectedly might contrive to be offended by it. The academy’s educational mission must stay on the right side of intellectual vacuity.

All in a day’s work?

August 11, 2015

A recent survey conducted (as far as I can tell) in England has revealed that 77 per cent of university students have a paid job. More strikingly, 14 per cent have full-time jobs while studying.

Of course students working is not a new phenomenon; when I was a student many of us did some sort of paid work while at university. But in those days it tended to be during holidays, and not everyone felt any real pressure to earn money. Nowadays more students come from backgrounds where they cannot expect parents and families to provide funding, and costs (in particular accommodation costs) are much higher. Of course work can be an enriching experience for students (and course-related work placements are excellent), but when financial pressures are piled on and working hours invade study time it becomes a different matter.

This is another reason why public money needs to be targeted more specifically at those who most need it, so that earning money does not crowd out studies.  Universities also need to be stronger advocates for students, so that society understands that financial pressures must not compromise the opportunity to learn.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 862 other followers