Archive for the ‘university’ category

And again: what is higher education actually for?

February 28, 2019

There is a wonderful caricature of higher education, Microcosmographia Academica, which was written in 1908 by the Cambridge classicist Francis Macdonald Cornford. In this, with his tongue somewhat in cheek, he offered advice to the aspiring young academic. Much of it will not seem dated to contemporary readers. Amongst the nuggets of advice is this:

‘The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and ‘sound scholar’ is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called ‘brilliant’ and forfeit all respect.’

Cornford is said to have inspired some of the dialogue in the BBC series Yes Minister, which indeed also offered some analysis of the academy in some of its episodes. Not that we need to look outside the universities to find a cocked eyebrow at what goes on inside – there novels of David Lodge are but one example. But are we really all so cynical about higher education, and does this matter?

It does matter, because all joking aside, higher education matters. And the moment you say that, everyone goes off in search of the one true purpose, meaning and objective of the university system, something that can be boiled down enough to satisfy both Cornford’s Cambridge and Laurie Taylor’s Poppleton University.

There are many reasons why universities struggle so much to get proper public and official support (not excluding the preference of policymakers for anecdotal rather than empirical evidence when they go forth to bash institutions), but one of them is that all of higher education cannot work to the same vision and strategy, nor should it. But if we pretend that it does, or manoeuvre excessively to make it seem that way, we open up all sorts of chasms of incredulity that separate universities from their hinterland of natural support. We also slide into increasing discontent by members of the academy itself, as the very compelling article recently in the Irish Times by my former DCU colleague Greg Foley sets out.

Universities, individually even more than in higher education sectors as a whole, need to discover or re-discover a sense of mission that works specifically for them and is shorn of the cynicism that often accompanies such exercises, and to remember that this mission, whatever exact form it takes, is all about the educational, social, scientific, cultural and scientific empowerment of societies; which is what unites all of higher education.

In his advice to the young academic, Cornford offered the following insight:

‘There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.’

That’s a good place to start.

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Bullying in universities

February 19, 2019

Most universities make a genuine effort to maintain a culture and atmosphere in which people – students and staff – can thrive and in which intellectual debate and challenge is encouraged in a setting of personal respect. Most students, staff and faculty also do their utmost to maintain this culture. But a few don’t, and so in some institutions there may be individual cases of bullying, and sometimes a more widespread problem. In a small number of universities there may even be a pattern of people feeling that they need to leave in order to escape from an oppressive atmosphere. Sometimes this atmosphere may be either tolerated or even promoted by people in positions of authority.

In order to get a better sense of people’s experiences with this problem, I have invited anyone affected to contact me in confidence, to allow me to analyse the problem and to see how those in authority can correct it where it is in evidence. I published the invitation on Twitter, and within hours I had received numerous messages and individual stories. I will be renewing the invitation this week in order to get as big a sample as possible.

What have I detected so far? First, institutional culture is definitely a factor. A significant number of those contacting me are attached to a small number of institutions, in which many people appear to have been victims, not of the same bully, but of several in different parts of the organisation, including some at or near the top. These are institutions that will need to look very closely at their values and how these are maintained in practice, and how the institutions are led. There are also cases of powerful individuals who, moving through different stages of their professional lives, leave a trail of bullying behind them, with others reluctant to stop them for fear of becoming targets.

This also leads me to another feature of bullying where it exists: the inactive bystander. In most cases other people in the organisation are fully aware of what a bully is doing, but do nothing (or not enough) to stop them.

Finally, external pressures on universities are clearly sometimes contributing factors to behaviours that can be classified as bullying, and higher education may need to be reviewed with a view to ascertaining whether excessive or inappropriate pressures are creating unnecessary human misery.

It is worth stressing again that this is not a problem everywhere, and that many institutions make a real effort to provide a supportive and effective framework, for students and for staff. But this makes it all the more important that the academy as a whole is seen to offer a good place to study and work.

It is my intention to write a more detailed report on what I am finding in due course, protecting the identity of those who have provided me with their stories. My intention is not to shame institutions, but to encourage much better practices where these are called for.

I can be contacted, in total confidence, at the email address you can find on this page.

Free speech in universities: a new guide for England and Wales

February 5, 2019

As readers of this blog know, the issue of freedom of expression in universities has frequently been in the news over recent years. It has been alleged repeatedly that university communities have become bad at ensuring that a variety of views on controversial topics can be expressed without hindrance, for example views that support conservative politics, or certain arguments regarding transgender matters.

This has prompted a new guide on freedom of expression in higher education in England and Wales, prepared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and supported by a variety of organisations, including the UK government, Universities UK, and the National Union of Students.

The guide points out that higher education providers have a legal duty to protect freedom of expression, and that while some restrictions may be lawful, ‘the right to free expression should not be restricted just because other people may find it offensive or insulting’. It adds:

‘An intolerant point of view, which offends some people, is likely to be protected if it is expressed in a political speech or a public debate where different points of views are being exchanged and are open to challenge.’

Universities have found it difficult on occasion to balance free speech with the respect for those who find certain opinions offensive. It his however important for students (and indeed the wider society) to hear views with which they may disagree, or even disagree strongly. This does not of course mean, as some have suggested, that there is some sort of epidemic of intolerance in higher education, but it does mean that there is an issue here that needs attention.

Whether the guide will help institutions to navigate these tricky waters remains to be seen, but the guide does a good job of setting out both the legal obligations involved and the reasons for them. It should be welcomed.

The rise of the ‘smart university’?

January 15, 2019

A few years ago for this blog, I interviewed the then Irish Minister for Education and Science, Ruairi Quinn. He was one of those relatively rare examples of an education minister with a real understanding of and sympathy for higher education, and indeed a set of civilised and cultured values.

However, at the time he was trying to think through what needed to change in the university system, and he offered the following thought. If one were to take an early 20th century surgeon, he suggested, and transfer him to a 21st century operating theatre, all he would be able to do that would be of any use would be to mop the patient’s brow and sweep the floor. Take a professor from that era and put him in a 21st century lecture theatre, and he would mostly feel at home and get on with the lecture. So, what had happened, or not happened, that made universities so immune to the passage of time?

One could of course argue, and indeed argue emphatically, with his premise. Most 21st century university lecture venues contain all sorts of new technology, not least the screen with its egregious Powerpoint slides. Our 20th century academic would have been astonished at, and probably not that pleased with, all the paperwork and audit trials and so forth. He (and it would be ‘he’) would have noticed a much better (though not perfect) gender balance. But then again, if in his home era he had just purchased and read F.M. Cornford’s 1908 book, Microcosmographia Academica, he might well have found that much of its satire on academic life was totally apposite a hundred years later. The argument might therefore be that the technology and bureaucracy and demographics had changed, but the basic methodology and the academic outlook had not; or something like that.

It is in this context that I wonder about concepts such as the ‘smart university’, which has been explored in recent literature such as the book Smart Education and e-Learning 2016, by Vladimir Ustov et al (Springer Verlag). The authors explore the concept of the smart university and suggest that it must have a number of key elements to quality as such, these being adaptation, sensing, inferring, self-learning, anticipation, self-organisation and configuration, restructuring and recovery. They see the new university as being technology-driven with far fewer boundaries between branches of scholarship, reflected also in more fluid structures.

As we look into the higher education future, we are bound to experience some tension between a defence of intellectual integrity and intellectual autonomy on the one hand, and a system that is driven by new concepts of knowledge acquisition and processing on the other. What impact will this have, and what are the implications for higher education regulation? What  will it do to the student experience, and even more importantly, to the graduate’s understanding of what she or he has experienced and acquired in their studies? Perhaps of equal importance, can this democratise knowledge (and undermine the value of elite networks), or will it support societal authoritarianism?

The future of universities is, for all sorts of reasons, one of the most important topics for society in the coming era.

What next for universities?

January 8, 2019

From 1978 to 2018 – in other words, for 40 years – I worked for universities. Throughout these years universities seemed to experience both great advances and great crises. Student numbers grew exponentially, as it became public policy to make higher education much more inclusive. Research budgets became significant as indicators of excellence. Whole regions were transformed by university growth in their midst.

And then again I remember the unrelenting higher education budget cuts in Ireland in the 1980s, the ‘efficiency gains’ (also cuts) in England in the 1990s, the bureaucratisation of systems through quality frameworks, the impact of the global recession of 2008 and subsequent years. But perhaps the trend that I hated most was some influential people’s tendency to criticise universities as remote institutions of elitist privilege, often assisted by folksy anecdotes allegedly demonstrating university inadequacies. All this produced an equally questionable defensiveness in the sector, which sometimes defended the indefensible just as readily as the unjustly vilified.

So this new year, 2019, has not begun well. Recent analysis has shown that the higher education funding framework in England has produced problems for the sector, and reforms hinted at by government may generate a major financial crisis. It is being asked whether graduates really always derive a benefit from university degrees. In Ireland the role of the funding agency, the Higher Education Authority, is being questioned.

It all feels odd to me now, watching these developments from the outside. But right now it is more important than ever to identify an up-to-date purpose for higher education, a framework for its resourcing, and a secure way of protecting both its integrity and its autonomy. This will be one of the key themes of this blog in 2019.

Understanding student loneliness

December 4, 2018

Some years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I decided to take a little time on Christmas Day to offer coffee and light Christmas snacks to students staying in the university halls of residence over the holiday period. A good number turned up. Some of them were there because they came from national or cultural backgrounds where Christmas was not a holiday, and a few were there because, frankly, they had nowhere else to go. It was a pleasant get-together overall, but what stayed in my mind most was a conversation with a young woman who told me that, for many students (and not just those still in residence), this was a particularly lonely time of year. She said that for anyone feeling a sense of challenge or stress, or any kind of lack of self-respect, the end of the year was the very worst time.

Just this past week, Oxford University Students Union referred to a report by the Office of National Statistics that revealed that young people make up the loneliest age group in society. The Union draws attention to the need to address this very human problem at this time of year. It is indeed important for universities to show awareness of student loneliness, and to offer support, and sometimes just empathy. It is important to give students an assurance that they do not have to be alone, and that there are people to whom they can talk. It is a good time to communicate such messages to the whole student body.

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 or 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,