Archive for the ‘university’ category

A question of money

November 20, 2018

For a few years now there has been a steady stream of predictions that one or more English universities would face bankruptcy, or at any rate life-threatening financial difficulties. Most recently this month it was suggested that at least three universities are at risk. In what is an increasingly marketised system, the question this has thrown up is whether, in the event of such a crisis, the government or its agencies would throw a lifeline.

According to Sir Michael Barber, the chair of the Board of the new Office for Students (OfS), earlier this month, the answer is no:

‘The OfS will not bail out providers in financial difficulty. This kind of thinking – not unlike the ‘too big to fail’ idea among the banks – will lead to poor decision-making and a lack of financial discipline, is inconsistent with the principle of university autonomy and is not in students’ longer term interests.’

But then again, maybe it isn’t. Last Thursday the BBC reported that an unnamed university head received almost £1m in the summer ‘to stay afloat’ as it was ‘running out of cash’. The OfS, which provided the money, offered a complicated explanation of why this had been done, when Sir Michael had just emphasised that it wouldn’t be a good idea; apparently it was done under the framework previously applying to HEFCE, and so it was entirely different.

No matter. The question really is whether universities should always be protected by the state, or whether there are circumstances where it would be sensible to let a badly-managed institution close shop altogether. The issue is rapidly transitioning from being the sort of thing you might raise after you’ve indulged in food and drink excessively to one where the prospect of university bankruptcy does not seem beyond possibility. In the United States, a Harvard Business Scholl professor has even predicted that half of America’s universities are at risk.

Closing a university is no small thing. This is not about removing an excessively paid Vice-Chancellor from the payroll: it is about what happens to staff, students, suppliers and others who interact with it. It is about facing a big gap where the university previously provided a magnet for investment pr regeneration.

Having a vague threat of liquidation hanging over institutions is not good. If universities are genuinely to face this risk, the rules in this context need to be clearly stated and understood,

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Universities and the leadership riddle

November 6, 2018

For 18 years, between 2000 and 2018, I held the leadership position in two universities. During that time I was interviewed several times by journalists and student reporters, and the one question I always found particularly difficult to answer was this: what was my ‘leadership style’? I never really saw myself as having a ‘style’ of leadership, and if I did it was a more appropriate question for others to answer than for me.

Leadership models can in part be defined by the constraints of the office. German university heads – Rectors (not used in the Scottish sense) – are usually elected and occupy, for a limited period, a position of ceremonial leadership rather than managerial authority. The Provost of Trinity College Dublin is also elected, but as the Provost also chairs the university’s Board, he or she can exercise very significant control over strategy and administration. In higher education institutions more generally, the impact of governing bodies can vary significantly, with implications for executive leadership.

Institution heads also face very different expectations by faculty and staff. But what are these expectations, and how are they expressed? An American study recently found that senior university staff expected their Presidents to exercise ‘transformational leadership’, and that institutions with such leadership tended to be in the top ranks of league tables. On the other hand, the Guardian newspaper in Britain recently reported a recruitment consultant as saying that university heads were now expected to have ‘the ability to engage with all stakeholders and to want to work in partnership with them and to do so in a low ego way.’

Of course all of this is tied up with the continuing debate about what kind of organisations universities are, and how the community of staff and students should interact with leaders to determine and implement institutional vision and policy. This in turn is complicated by governance, which is necessary for accountability but which often injects its own expectations, based on the external experience and insights of governors.

Over the past decade or two universities in a number of countries have been hit by bureaucratic and financial pressures that have prompted a fast pace of change, with universities scrambling to meet stakeholder demands while rarely having the time to consider calmly whether they were doing this in an optimum way. It has often been said that this has produced an atmosphere of low morale; but is probably more accurate to say that it produced organisational fatigue with some restlessness. Fine-tuning a leadership model in all of this has not been easy.

It is unlikely that universities can still take their time to come up with strategy based on verifiable institution-wide consensus. It is equally unlikely that university communities will for ever accept the formulation of strategy as a leadership prerogative. The tsunami of audit and review mechanisms makes it very hard for this balance to be got right, but sooner or later this must be allowed to happen. Sooner, I hope.

Work-based learning and higher education diversity

October 8, 2018

In 2011 the Higher Education Academy in the UK published An Introduction to Work-Based Learning. This was not so much an analysis, but more a guide to assist institutions wanting to introduce such learning methods. The document based its definition of work-based learning on a previous study (Boud and Solomon):

‘a class of university programmes that bring together universities and work organizations to create new learning opportunities in workplaces.’

There are several possible models for such programmes, but outlining them is not my purpose here. My own two previous universities (Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University) have significant and ambitious work-based learning policies, and have had some considerable success in making such learning available to students. RGU is a founding partner of Scotland’s Centre for Work-Based Learning, which describes itself as a ‘national organisation driving cultural change and creating demand for work-based learning in Scotland.’

I have been and am a huge supporter of work-based learning, but it is important to understand that an institution adopting it as a learning tool is expressing a certain view about the nature and purpose of higher education. This in turn raises issues about whether all higher education is based on just one concept of learning and one uniform expectation of learning outcomes, or whether individual institutions can legitimately express a diversity not just of mission but of operational practice.

All of this is of course closely connected with debates about higher education and skills: whether universities are in the business of upskilling students through more vocational education, or not. Mostly this debate has been conducted on the apparent understanding that, whatever it may look like, there should be one model of higher education, and we need to work out which particular understanding of skills and work are inherent in this model.

A much better approach would be to accept – or even seek and celebrate – diversity of mission. Not all universities need to offer work-based learning. This should depend on mission and strategy. But it is counter-productive to suggest that there is one right approach for everyone, or that one model is more valuable than another, or that the same culture needs to permeate all universities. It is time to diversify the system.

Starting off

September 17, 2018

In a number of countries, and in very many universities, the new academic year has been getting under way this month. For students who are now embarking upon their degree studies, this can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but for many it is also something unfamiliar and occasionally intimidating. It is every university’s obligation to ensure that students feel supported at this time, and that those who are not comfortable know who they can turn to for help.

Orientation for new students should always include information about the help that is available for those who feel the need for it. This can and should be communicated in readily accessible online information – such as this example from the University of Colorado at Boulder – but also in face-to-face meetings and in classes.

Right now there is also a growing and welcome focus in universities on mental health, which must be accompanied by appropriate professional support.

Overall, the message to students must be that they should never feel they have got to face problems alone, and that there is always someone they can turn to who will listen, help and make time for them. That is the key duty that all universities must meet.

Protecting our honour

September 10, 2018

I’m about to make up a number here, but just work with me. Across the world in 2017, some 200,000 people were awarded honorary doctorates. A significant proportion these awards were handed to eminent academics, often at or near retirement, whose work was of real intellectual significance and produced wider benefits. Some were awarded to prominent people who showed their support for higher education activities and values. Some… – well some, you just don’t know why they got them.

I’m sure that it is not the most urgent issue to address in today’s global higher education, but I confess that, as a university head for the past 18 years, I was never absolutely sure how to handle honorary degrees. When I became President of Dublin City University I introduced a moratorium, and for the first three years of my tenure we awarded none at all. Then we carefully identified a small number of people with whose work and achievements we wanted to identify as a university, but we continued to do this sparingly and at most ceremonies there were no honorary conferrings.

I continued this approach in Robert Gordon University (and in fact had to deal with one honorary degree awarded before my time which we felt we had to revoke). While I feel really proud of  the honorary doctorates that were conferred in my time in both universities, I have never been quite sure whether my approach was right or wrong. It just seemed to me that the currency of these awards was increasingly debased across higher education because there were so many of them. I am absolutely not against recognising achievements, values and principles, and honorary degrees are a way of celebrating exceptional merit. This year for example, on International Women’s Day, RGU conferred honorary doctorates on three outstanding women, with very different backgrounds and profiles; it was a wonderful occasion.

But then again, is it right that a number of celebrities gather up a whole collection of awards that seem to recognise their fame rather than any merit? And still, some of these celebrities have done remarkable things to help others and uphold intellectual values. So what really is the correct approach?

I have no answer really, but would urge universities to make these awards signify something that supports and enhances the purposes and values of the institution, and to do it not so frequently as to obscure the special merit of each honour.

The need to address academic bullying

September 4, 2018

In my 38 years of management in higher education – in roles from Department Head and Faculty Dean to President/Principal – one of the most difficult tasks has been to confront those few people who were bullies and who were targeting more vulnerable or less powerful colleagues. Bullying is of course not unique to universities, but it can be particularly difficult to address in the academy, because it can appear to be tied up with academic freedom and intellectual autonomy.

It could be argued that this is connected with a wider problem in universities, in that academic discourse is occasionally conducted in an aggressive tone, because it is thought appropriate to defend intellectual positions in a robust manner. It is not too difficult for robust argument to morph into personal aggression. When this is experienced by someone in a more junior or vulnerable position than that enjoyed by an aggressor it quickly turns into bullying, and moreover can become a pattern rather than an incident.

The journal Nature recently published a commentary by an American professor in which she suggested that personal bullying can be an issue in science laboratories in particular, where postgraduates, postdocs and junior academics can be dependent career-wise on lab supervisors, and thus may not only be subjected to aggressive behaviour but may also find it hard or even impossible to resist or escape from the situation. And of course one would have to ask why they should be expected in the first place to escape in order to experience appropriate working conditions.

It is right to call time on academic cultures that subject people to personal distress. And it is right to emphasise that no amount of academic freedom can justify the mistreatment of colleagues. Each university should have not only a policy on this but also mechanisms to protect the vulnerable, and evidence to show that these mechanisms are taken seriously and work.

Changes

August 14, 2018

Almost exactly 40 years ago I was sitting my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days the finals were in September, which made it really difficult for some who needed their results rather earlier when making job applications. Anyway, I had, very late in the day, decided to pursue an academic career, and from TCD went on to do a PhD in Cambridge. I then returned to Dublin and became a lecturer in Trinity College. And on from there.

Those of you who read the North-East Scotland media will already know that, with effect from the end of this month, I shall be leaving my position as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, a post I have held since March 2011. In fact I have spent nearly half my academic career leading two universities consecutively. That’s probably long enough.

However, I shall not be losing interest in the academy, and am already doing work for two books I am intending to write. And this blog will continue. But as I look back, what perhaps strikes me most is that my career never followed a predictable path. I left school in 1972, not intending to go to university at all. After two years in employment, I changed my mind, and went to TCD, intending to be a barrister. As an academic, I expected to be a researcher (and was for a while), but became a university leader instead. There is no such thing as a reliable career plan, and indeed this is more true now than it was then. And for me, there may be one more opportunity to do something completely different. We’ll see.