Archive for the ‘university’ category

Diversifying the university ‘business’

February 1, 2016

While some of the most prominent universities internationally have an array of activities that include teaching, research, consulting, managing intellectual property and so forth, and while their financial accounts often reflect this diversity, overwhelmingly most universities are heavily dependent on income from one particular activity and one source of revenue: teaching undergraduate students, funded by the state. In this role universities are public agencies providing a vitally important and strategic service to national goals.

But they are also financially highly vulnerable. Their organisational health depends on the ability of their key funder to keep increasing their income in line with both inflation and the university’s strategic development goals – but almost no state can guarantee that kind of financial stability, and pressures on public money will quite regularly force governments to cut higher education funding, usually moving the funding baseline downwards as they do so. In the meantime the reliance on teaching prevents the institutions from developing a high profile reputation globally, which is really only achievable through high value research. Therefore a teaching-focused university threatened by public funding pressures has little with which to market itself to other potential funders or customers. The same may even be true of a privately funded teaching-only institution, which would still be vulnerable to market shifts affecting its customers and a lack of alternative products.

The answer to this problem is to behave, at least in some respects, more like the prominent high value research universities – while at the same time managing to find a set of priorities and values that distinguish them from those institutions. This view of how universities should behave in order to be sustainable was suggested in a recent comment on the US system in the Washington Post. The author, a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested that ‘the strongest universities are those that depend on more than just students for their revenue’, and that institutions should in particular ‘double down on their research efforts to attract new dollars.’ Of course there are many different ways of tackling a research strategy, and there are other ways also of developing revenue streams based on skills and knowledge; for example an increasing number of universities are now presenting themselves as commercial consulting firms.

It has been suggested for some time that an increasing number of universities may be financially at risk. To avoid slipping into this state and to ensure sustainability, higher education institutions would do well to diversify and to ensure that their portfolio is not excessively focused on just one particular activity.

Addressing student attrition

January 25, 2016

If you were a student at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, and if you were studying Theatre and Drama Studies, you’d be in clover and pretty much guaranteed to complete your course: the attrition rate in the course is zero. On the other hand if in the same Institute you were studying IT Management, or Electronic Engineering, then more likely than not you’ll drop out before you complete: over 60 per cent don’t make it in either course. The same is true for students in Energy in the University of Limerick; but not Midwifery in the same university, where there are no drop-outs. Even in Trinity College Dublin, 50 per cent of Computer Science students don’t make it.

All of these figures, and many more, are revealed by the Irish Times in a recent article. But this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland. In Britain there are significant trends also, with Computer Science generally recording the highest attrition rates. Overall some 25,000 students drop out of higher education altogether every year in the UK, without completing their course. Interestingly, and as an aside, the drop-out rate amongst international students is lower than that of domestic students. In the United States the overall attrition rate is high – estimates put it at over 30 per cent; but very low in well resourced research universities.

What is the cause of all this? In some cases it is likely that students have made an immature choice of study. Young people, for example, who have been used to working with computers since a very early age imagine they will be wonderful computer programmers, until they discover that they do not have the technical (in particular mathematical) skills needed. In some cases students were persuaded by parents or teachers or other advisers to pursue a course of study that they were never really suited for. In some cases universities and colleges don’t provide the kind of support needed to keep people in their studies.

But student attrition is not something minor – it is a huge failure of the system.  It is an extraordinary waste: a waste of talent and personal application; a waste of money, including taxpayer money in many countries; a waste of opportunity for people and society. There is no acceptable drop-out rate. Where students are not completing, those of us in the system need to work very hard to find out why, and need to remedy it. And the key thing to bear in mind is that student achievement requires the best facilities and the best support – it requires good funding. Without that the problem will not be resolved.

Universities and freedom of speech: one more time

January 18, 2016

For the second year running, the website spiked has published a particular university league table for the UK, providing ‘a detailed, annual insight into the state of free speech, debate and expression in the British academy.’ It presents universities in three categories: ‘red’ (universities that have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’); amber (universities that have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’); and green (universities that have ‘a hands-off approach to free speech’). 115 institutions have been included.

By far the largest group consists of the ‘red’ universities, with 63 institutions. This includes some very familiar names, for example Oxford, LSE, and Queen’s in Ireland. Then there is the ‘amber’ group, with 40 universities including Cambridge, Aberdeen, York, and Ulster. The ‘green’ group of institutions that do not interfere with free speech has 12 universities, including my own RGU.

Oxford may be amongst the ‘red’ group, but its new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, has indicated that she would like to adjust this culture. Speaking at her installation she suggested that students should ‘appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own.’

Universities may increasingly be at risk of seeing intellectual challenge as a disturbance of scholarship rather than its affirmation. Free speech is the guarantor of academic integrity and should never be compromised, where it is within the law. In that sense the rankings published by spiked may serve a useful purpose.

Must Rhodes fall?

January 12, 2016

If we were looking for an historical figure with whom a contemporary university would want to be associated, Cecil Rhodes probably would not be on the shortlist. He is strongly associated with the colonisation of Africa (often conducted very aggressively), and from time to time expressed views that we would have to regard as racist – though he also stated that it was unacceptable ‘to disqualify a human being on account of his colour’.

Last year a movement began to have a statue of Rhodes located on the campus of the University of Cape Town taken down. Of course this movement had a hashtag, #RhodesMustFall. The university took down the statue and is re-locating it elsewhere. Shortly afterwards a similar movement, initiated by South African Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, demanded that Oriel College Oxford remove its statue of Rhodes (who was one of the College’s major benefactors). Mr Qwabe may have slightly muddied the waters of his campaign by including in its objectives the banning of the French tricolour national flag.

But how should one see such campaigns? There have been vocal contributions to the debate, both for and against the removal of the Oxford statue. But how should one treat the issue? Is it good enough to say that historical artefacts must be retained because they are of their time and may help us to illustrate our contemporary evaluation of history? Would anyone suggest, for example, that if we found a statue somewhere of Hitler it should stay put? And not just Hitler, though actually there are still statues of Stalin, who was responsible for a good deal more aggression, violence, oppression and death than one could ever associate with Rhodes.

In the end, the key in all of this maybe does not lie in what we do with statues or other symbols, but how we ensure that our words, our vision and our actions reflect an ethos and values that are in keeping with the spirit of higher education. Oxford may, as some have argued, have a racism problem – but this has little enough to do with whose likeness is on the outside wall of Oriel College. The university may need to take action to correct this; but thinking that the main objective is about what it does with statues is a distraction.

For myself, I would leave statues where they are, but would want to be reminded from time to time that the values of learning, integrity, tolerance and equality need to be stated and restated in every generation; and that the symbols we erect today should be beacons of those values.

Culture wars on American campuses?

December 8, 2015

As we all know, youtube videos can go viral, and here is one that has done so recently. It shows an exchange of views – if we can call it that – at Yale University. Should you wish to learn a little about the background to this incident, you can read it here. And finally, here is another account from a participant of sorts, published in the Washington Post.

Should you not wish to read the stories, here is a short summary. A Yale academic, Erika Christakis, sent out an email in which she reflected on the potential benefits of students and others being allowed to express themselves (in this case in the choice of Halloween costumes) in ways that could include being ‘a little bit inappropriate or provocative’. Some students took offence at the email, and this in turn led to the recorded confrontation between Dr Christakis’s husband (who was defending the email) and some students.

The question that all this raises is one I have covered before in this blog – whether there is on a university campus (or for that matter, anywhere else) a right not to be offended. Do universities have an obligation to ensure that no one is troubled or disturbed by what they see or hear? And of course, how does all of this affect freedom of speech?

Of course universities do have a duty of care towards their students, including a duty to ensure that students are not the victims of discrimination or bullying and that they can learn in an environment that encourages them and supports them. I do not believe, however, that universities are obliged to ensure that no student ever hears anything they do not like, or that they never meet anyone who disagrees with them. Intellectual inquiry is about hearing every point of view, even offensive ones.

As a result of the backlash against her email, Erika Christakis resigned from her Yale University teaching post. That, I would suggest, was not a good day for the university.

Charles W. Eliot, and the nobility of ideas

November 10, 2015

There are certain books, I would argue, that everyone who has an interest in higher education should read at some point. One of these without doubt is a collection of essays by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University for an amazing 40 years until 1909 and a cousin of the celebrated poet T.S. Eliot, published in 1898 under the title Educational Reform. It was Eliot who turned Harvard into the world leading university it is today, and along the way he contributed to some really interesting public debate about the nature and purpose of higher education.

The book is full of fascinating reflections on a variety of subjects connected with education, but it is best for the reader to start with the first essay, which is in fact Eliot’s inaugural address, delivered at the beginning of his presidency when he was only 35 years old. This essay not only sets out Eliot’s views on education, but also illustrates, by describing the system he had taken on, how much he managed to change it during his presidency. But it also contains insights that are still important today, including this:

‘The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities and public schools, from primary to professional. The worthy fruit of academic culture is an open mind, trained to careful thinking, instructed in the methods of philosophic investigation, acquainted in a general way with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility.’

In the same essay Eliot suggested that the task of the university is to make people (well, he said ‘men’, but they were different times) ‘be loyal to noble ideas as in other times they had been to kings’. Today one would say that different universities can and should have different missions, but the integrity of intellectual thought – ‘noble ideas’ – needs to be common to all institutions still. Eliot’s ideas are worth reading.

Universities and the UK’s EU referendum

October 27, 2015

There is little doubt, one supposes, where the balance of opinion lies in the British university sector regarding EU membership. When the UK votes, in 2017 or whenever, on whether to stay in or leave the European Union, academics and students will probably vote overwhelmingly in favour of staying in. I say ‘probably’ because we cannot of course know for sure, but those voices that are most audible right now are all in favour of membership. This includes the universities themselves and their leaders, as formally represented in Universities UK – which has launched a ‘Universities for Europe’ campaign. And Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and Vice-President of UUK, has joined the board of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign. In fact I know of no voice amongst the university sector’s leadership advocating a no vote, or even expressing any degree of uncertainty.

In case you were wondering whether all these EU supporters at the helm of higher education were representative of the wider community of staff and students, the answer is that they probably are. The Social Research Agency NatCen has published polling data showing that the young and educated overwhelmingly want to stay in the EU, in contrast with older and less educated people. Indeed on this blog a well respected academic from Dundee University last year argued a strong case for Britain’s continuing membership.

My purpose here is not to ask whether this great consensus of people is right; but rather what role, if any, universities should play in this debate, or indeed any other debate like it. Should universities be making the case, one way or another, for a particular position on an issue which the people are to be asked to vote?

There is no easy answer to this. When the Scottish independence referendum campaign was under way in 2014, the agreed position of Scotland’s universities was to highlight the issues that might affect higher education, but to avoid advocating a yes or a no vote. This avoided any division within the sector, and also allowed universities to do what they do best – analyse and explain. Universities were part of the national debate but were not partisan; and that may be a good position to occupy wherever a debate – with two civilised sides to the argument – is taking place in a society that is divided on the issue.

It is my hope that many academics will be heard in the national discussion about Britain’s future within or outside the EU. It is also perfectly good for academics to take sides publicly, on the assumption that they treat those who disagree with them with a degree of respect. But I do not believe that universities as institutions should be partisan, not least because if they are, the force of any substantive arguments they may wish to make will be weakened. Avoiding a recommendation to citizens to vote one way or another, while setting out the issues that should be considered, is the best position of institutional integrity.


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