Archive for the ‘university’ category

A government plot to seize control? No.

March 10, 2015

This post first appeared in The Conversation on 5 March 2015

In British university leadership circles, one particular view has become commonplace: that any and all higher education legislation is prima facie an attack on institutional autonomy and a statement of intent by government to micro-manage the system. The debate sometimes doesn’t get as far as assessing the details of the legislation: the act of legislating on its own is unacceptable, irrespective of content.

There are shades of this in the responses to the Scottish government’s planned higher education legislation. For example one of the government’s proposals is to provide in a new statute that the position of university principal should be identified (but not named) as “chief executive officer”. That has been described by representatives of one university, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph, as a “telling and very worrying indication of the degree of control over universities that is being sought”. That response and comment could reasonably be described as particularly bizarre, since a clarification of an executive role gives no opportunity of any kind for government intervention or control.

The truth is, of course, that legislation in this or any sphere is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It depends on the purpose and content of any proposed regulation.

Nor is this in any way restricted to higher education. The UK has an extensive framework of companies legislation, regulating corporate organisation and action – yet few would suggest that this interferes with the freedom of companies to trade independently. The question is not whether legislation is unacceptable per se, but whether it reflects and protects a legitimate public interest without interfering improperly in autonomy.

The Scottish government’s proposals are intended to implement recommendations made in 2012 by the review that I chaired on higher education governance. The report made it clear that institutional autonomy should be a key principle of the higher education framework, alongside academic freedom. But we also recommended that there should be a regulatory framework that assured transparency and openness and gave due recognition to the interests of the stakeholders in higher education. Universities are autonomous bodies, and should be. But their autonomy should not shield them from legitimate expectations that they engage with staff, students and external partners, or from the need to behave in an accountable manner.

None of this is about government control. None of our recommendations, and indeed none of the proposed elements of the government’s planned legislation, would give any power to ministers to interfere in the running of institutions. Indeed the government has made it clear that it has no wish to exercise any such powers.

It is of course perfectly in order to have a debate on the merits of the legislative proposals, and there is nothing wrong with people being sceptical about the details. But it is also right to expect that the assessment of these proposals should be based on analysis and evidence, and should wherever possible avoid hyperbole.

50 shades of sexism in the academy

March 5, 2015

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, University of Dundee

In a blog post entitled We have come a long way but…, Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University with an interest in matters of equality and diversity, while recognising the success of the Athena project launched back in 1999 and of the Athena Swan Charter, also acknowledges how too many departments still think that Athena Swan means ‘high profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department’.

As a sign of how successful the Athena brand has become the Charter, originally limited to STEM subjects, will be expanding later this year to include arts, humanities, social science, business and law departments. Some pilot schemes in the humanities have already been carried out last year; of particular interest is the report just released by the Royal Historical Society, where concern is expressed ‘about a macho work culture of intense competition and peer pressure, with no interest in a good work/life balance, in the context of a sector-wide climate of continually raised expectations of achievement in research, publication and grant-winning.’

Ireland is following suit with the launch on February 5th of an Athena SWAN pilot open to all publicly funded universities and institutes of technology. NUI Galway is taking a lead on the issue of gender equality by setting up an independent taskforce; however as retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness writes in the Irish Times, the issue of gender discrimination ‘is not unique to traditional sectors such as higher education or even to Ireland.’ This is sadly true. In fact according to a recent World Economic Forum report not one country has fully closed the gender gap yet (the UK has dropped from 9th to 26th place since 2006), and it will take 81 years for the worldwide gap to close if progress continues at the current rate.

Back to academia. An analysis by Thomson Reuters in association with Times Higher Education in 2013 demonstrated startling levels of gender inequality in research-intensive universities across the world. In the UK the Equality Challenge Unit’s statistical report for 2014 on Equality in Higher Education showed a persistent pay gap median of 13.6% between male and female academics, a decline in uptake and duration of maternity leave, few opportunities for part-time working across the whole higher education sector and the continued dominance of men in senior roles. Specifically, only 14% Vice-Chancellors and Principals are female, only 20.5% of professors are female, and in 2013 only 15 professors were BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) women.

On a positive note, one might celebrate the fact that more women are now reaching middle management and yet, as Tara Brabazon notes in her sobering piece Generation X Women and Higher Education:

‘These posts manage teaching staff, workload, timetabling and assessment: the ‘housework’ of universities…female academics into middle management is not the clean victory it appears. The structures have not changed. The assumptions about teaching ‘value’ have not altered.’

What is also troubling is that female academics remain very reluctant to bring cases over career progression or gender discrimination. This, according to Joan Donegan, deputy general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, is mostly due to isolation and lack of confidence.  In the UK I recall the case of Liz Schafer, a Professor at Royal Holloway who took legal action over her employer’s ‘scandalous’ professorial pay gaps.

Perhaps it is not so shocking that, as the author of a study on sexism in academia reveals, she had to find a way to tell women’s stories, without any hint of those women being identifiable, so afraid were they of negative repercussions. I think that there is enough evidence to attest that universities have a gender equality problem, one which is not ‘natural’ but – ironically, given the business universities are in – ‘cultural’. The question is how to solve it without waiting 81 years for the gender gap to close.

The first step is to acknowledge the problem, to talk about it in public fora like this one. Secondly, universities must not become complacent, they must be aware of the ever-present risk that policies and programmes (like the Athena Swan) aimed at addressing equality and diversity issues may become substitutes for action. Thirdly, conscious, structured, institutional efforts are needed to counteract unconscious and unintentional gender biases.

As judge Catherine McGuinness rightly put it in the opinion piece cited above, ‘systemic problems require systemic and not localised solutions’, hence corrections need to be built into our systems. Such corrections can include training, mentoring, leadership programmes, and as the Equality and Diversity in the REF: Final report advocates:

‘Funding bodies should consider more explicitly assessing measures to promote and support equality and diversity, as part of the research environment element of a future REF exercise.’

Lastly, quotas can be, even on a temporary basis, the corrections we need. Personally, I am persuaded by the research in this field, for example by the work of Curt Rice and Louise Davidson- Schmich. Significantly, one of the recommendations of the review of higher education governance in Scotland, chaired by the host of this blog in 2012  was that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim. A synergy between universities and governments can deliver results, as the Flemish gender action plan shows.

In conclusion, the reader may have noted of course that the title of this post echoes the one of a popular erotic romance novel. This is no cheeky choice: as the writings of generations of gender studies scholars like Andrea Dworkin or novelists like Angela Carter have argued, sexuality and power converge to create masterful societal narratives, hence old romantic fantasies of dominant men happen to coexist, in our sexually saturated culture, with highly successful examples of macho management and leadership. The risk is that the permanence of similar models will tie women down far more than any rope ever could, trapping them forever in universities’ ‘ivory basements’.

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.

So what makes a university?

February 17, 2015

As Ireland continues to struggle with the not very well thought out idea of ‘technological universities’ – now under fire because the somewhat daft requirement for candidate institutions to merge with others first is producing unexpectedly high costs – and England works on for-profit university institutions, new universities are also being created in the United States. The latest upgrade is what was the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, now to be Stockton University.

What is interesting about the announcement of its new status is that it is being described as a ‘comprehensive’ university, which in turn is explained by the institution itself as follows:

‘Comprehensive universities emphasize teaching, as opposed to research universities, which place more emphasis on faculty members’ research being published in refereed journals and books for promotion and tenure.’

So what is it that makes a university a university? If Stockton College continues to do as Stockton University what it did before, what will be the significance of the change, and how is its appropriateness assessed? And to what extent do we (or should we) regard research as the calling card of a university?

It is not just in America that the answers to these questions may not be altogether clear. And of course there is no reason to think that only one model of university is legitimate. Nevertheless, if we are to protect the concept and brand of a ‘university’, we need to have a clear idea of what that is. And I’m not sure we do.

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.


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