Archive for the ‘university’ category

A presidential view: university metrics and the rise of mediocrity?

July 9, 2018

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has not been reluctant to enter contentious debate during the course of his term of office to date. Most recently, at the launch of the Cambridge University Press History of Ireland, the President offered the following view on universities as comfortable hosts for academic studies:

‘Within the universities, humanities have borne the brunt of the vicissitudes of new funding models, as resources are increasingly channelled towards areas which, it is suggested, will yield a return, at least in the short-term, to the university in terms of increased funding. Much of this is facilitated by an abuse of metrics; an ideological fad that views the use of metrics of academic work, not as a contribution or an instrument of knowledge but as a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity.’

The President has of course on previous occasions offered a similar analysis of the direction of higher education, and it is also clear that his view has support amongst a good number of academics; this article in the Irish Times is a good example. The English Campaign for the Public University also offers very similar views.

There is in such campaigns sometimes an element of irritation that taxpayer funding should come with strings attached, and in so far as this is part of the complaint it cannot easily be upheld. There are few areas of public life supported by exchequer funds that can still expect to be outside of value-for-money scrutiny, however lofty the objectives of the funded bodies. What is perhaps a better focus of analysis would be what strings can acceptably be attached to educational funding, and of course the more general question of what kind and volume of public funding is required or justifiable.

The resistance to outcome-driven funding as a matter of principle is, I would think, bound to fail: the spirit of the age is against such resistance. The better argument would be about what outcomes are an appropriate subject of targeting and monitoring. For example, is it justifiable to reject targets for socio-economic inclusion in higher education (the access agenda)? Should research performance be entirely a matter of individual choice? How much weight do we give student opinion on quality and content of courses?

These are complex questions, but probably not questions that should be dismissed with charges of a subversion of higher education by neoliberal ideologues. Rather they are questions of policy that have never got to be the subject of agreement between the wider academy, their leaders, and government. Universities will never be run again as they were in the late 19th century; nor should they be, as they catered solely for a social elite. So we need to find a new social contract between the academy and the taxpayer. That is now the task.

President Higgins is right to raise these matters. But the ensuing debate needs to be conducted outside the trenches of hardened opinion. On all sides.


The mental health imperative

July 3, 2018

When I was a student in the 1970s, almost nobody ever mentioned mental health. And yet, I knew several students with anxiety and depression, who often found it difficult to share their problems with anyone, and who had pretty much no support they could call upon within the system. At least one of them was unable to complete their course, and struggled with these problems for many years subsequently.

Now, in 2018, the problem is at least increasingly recognised, though whether we are close to providing mental health and wellbeing care and support for all those in higher education is another matter. What is clear is that the pressures on students are increasingly intense and many find it difficult to cope. Staff on the other hand need what the charity Student Minds calls ‘mental health literacy’.

NUS Scotland has recently adopted a Charter for Student Rights on Mental Health. This sets out ten basic rights for students based on clearly identified need. Some of the problems identified by the NUS included the impact of internet trolling, inadequate availability of counselling, special problems encountered by LGBT students, and growing suicide numbers.

The NUS initiative is to be welcomed, and individual universities and colleges all need to prioritise mental wellbeing also. My own institution, Robert Gordon University, recently concluded a Student Mental Health Agreement with our Students’ Union, which will, I hope, provide an effective framework for support where it is needed. There is still much to be done.

The most important thing is not to ignore mental health and wellbeing, and not to let any members of the university community feel they have nowhere to go and nobody to support them. This is where we have to start.

Call the doctor

June 18, 2018

In the circles in which I once moved when I was still an active law lecturer, one of the regular questions colleagues from the United States of America would ask is whether, with a J.D. degree (‘Juris Doctor‘), they were entitled to style themselves ‘Dr’. This often led to long discussions about how academic qualifications should be used by their holders to declare their status.

I was awarded my own Ph.D. in 1982, and to be honest I immediately had my university letterhead amended to include my new title. And when I had done that I felt slightly sheepish, and for the rest of my career tended to avoid reference to my doctorate except in necessary contexts (as on my curriculum vitae).

Anyway, over the past few days there has been something of a Twitterstorm about academic doctorates. It began with the historian Fern Riddell, who last week tweeted as follows:

‘My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert, and my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible. I worked hard to earn my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.’

This earned her a number of critical responses, some saying that she was arrogant and was holding herself out to be better than others. But Dr Riddell was having none of that, and started the hashtag #ImmodestWomen. So before you could say ‘trending’ her tweet produced a tsunami of others, mostly women, proclaiming their entitlement to publish their academic status. Though somewhere in there we also had a man – a surgeon – proudly proclaiming his status as ‘Mr’, which as you know is the title of qualification and honour for that profession.

So there are two issues caught up in this. The first is to do with recognising and proclaiming expertise; the second is about recognising women as equally meriting such recognition.

Regarding the first of these, I guess that someone with long training and established expertise in some field outside of the academy might ask why academics merit titular recognition where others don’t. This might be less of an issue in other cultures, where titles more routinely display status in non-academic professions: ‘Herr Direktor’, ‘Frau Oberamtsrat’. But in British (or indeed Irish) society, should academic qualifications uniquely be attached to a name, where other qualifications are not?

On the other hand, in the context of gender it has taken a long time for women to secure easy recognition of expertise and leadership in universities; even now it is not unusual for heavily qualified women to be treated unequally and unfairly- sexism in the academy is far from dead, as a previous post by guest blogger Dr Anna Notaro also found.

So, on balance, I say to the #ImmodestWomen, go for it, claim what is your right.

Brexit and higher education – the Irish question resolved?

June 11, 2018

Intractable discussions about how to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland may be continuing, but one element of the relationship between Ireland and the UK post-Brexit appears to be capable of a positive resolution. At a recent meeting in London which I also attended, Sam Gyimah, the UK Minister of State for Universities, stated that the British government would continue to treat Irish students as domestic students for tuition fee purposes, provided that the Irish Government reciprocated and also classified British students as domestic students in Ireland.

Of course Mr Gyimah can in these discussions only speak for England, and we must wait and see what happens in the devolved jurisdictions.

The move is important not least because, since the Brexit vote, fewer Irish students have applied to study in the UK. There are significant opportunities for developing higher education partnerships between these islands, and relative frictionless student migration will help.

One small step in the Brexit complexity, but not an unimportant one.

Who wants to be a billionaire?

May 22, 2018

An extraordinary proportion – nearly a quarter – of the world’s billionaires are graduates of ten American universities. In addition, a large proportion of these billionaires started off rich, went to universities endowed with huge resources and social cachet, and became even richer. This is a world in which generally perceived institutional excellence is locked into social advantage, where rich graduates donate large funds to their already well-funded universities and ensure the continuation of a particular cycle of elitism, which is reinforced by a widespread belief that these ‘elite’ universities represent the best and only viable model of excellence.

If our societies are really to be more meritocratic and egalitarian, it is vital that we should move away from this kind of institutional elitism. The universities listed are all great institutions, but they do not represent the only acceptable quality mark of excellence. It is therefore increasingly important for modern systems of higher education to run with a variety of models, and to fund these to level at which they can pursue genuine innovation – and to secure a more inclusive system fit for the future.

Equally safe

April 23, 2018

One of the key duties of a university is to do all it can do offer an environment to students in which they are physically safe and given every possible support where they might be at risk from violence, bullying or harassment. Getting this right is not easy, because university students are adults who are free to make their own decisions as to how and with whom they want to live their lives. But many are also extremely vulnerable, and yet reluctant to show it.

A tragic example of what can happen was provided by the student Emily Drouet, who took her own life after falling victim to a manipulative and oppressive fellow student and seeing no way out of the distress she was experiencing. Her mother. Fiona Drouet, initiated a campaign to compel universities and colleges to provide safeguards and make sure students know who they can turn to for help and support. She developed the #emilytest, setting out actions which, if implemented, would help others in similar circumstances. Her campaign has received strong support form the Scottish Government, and the latest ministerial letter of guidance from Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville to the Scottish Funding Council set out expectations of what institutions must now do.

The Scottish Government has also supported Strathclyde University in developing an Equally Safe toolkit, which will be rolled out more widely and provide a framework of support.

It is probably true that no university has a perfect record in tackling gender-based violence. It is vitally important that no student should feel they are alone when faced with oppressive or psychologically bullying behaviour. They must have help available to them, and must know where they can find it. We really must try to fulfil this most basic but also vital duty of care, and to do so visibly.