Archive for the ‘university’ category

The rise of the illiberal university?

May 23, 2016

In 1982 the German-American historian Konrad Jarausch published a fascinating book (Students, Society and Politics in Imperial Germany: the Rise of Academic Illiberalism) in which he charted the rush of Wilhelmine universities and academics into sentimental nationalism and xenophobic intolerance, a rush that later allowed Hitler to secure student support even before he had assumed political power. It was a trend to be found also in other European countries at the time. But in Germany it was remarkable that the stirrings of inward looking nationalism in academic and student circles came just as universities were becoming less elite, and in particular were less the property of the aristocracy. The new academic population gave its support to an uncritical nationalism and shut out contrary voices.

Today’s universities are not on the same trajectory, and yet they too are experiencing tremors of illiberalism.  A recent study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute has revealed that a significant majority of students in the UK (76 per cent) have some sympathy for so-called ‘no platform’ policies, under which certain speakers are banned from speaking on a campus because their views are deemed unpalatable. Curiously the same study revealed that 60 per cent of students think that universities should never limit free speech.

What do we make of that? Nick Hillman, the Director of the Institute, thinks that for some students ‘illiberalism appears to be a way of protecting liberalism.’ But a democratic and open society requires debate, and this requirement is not satisfied by the presentation solely of arguments that the majority approves of or likes. A liberal and tolerant society needs to be tested in robust argument or it will quickly become illiberal. Free speech is not ‘free’ at all if it excludes certain views.

Today’s university population will, much more still than in Wilhelmine Germany, supply the dominant leadership in all layers of society for the next generation, and its values will inform our future. A society that only ever wants to hear what it already believes is hugely vulnerable to something it may think it is warding off. It is time to recover the truly liberal university.

Higher education – is competition always the answer?

May 16, 2016

The United Kingdom government, acting in this case for England only (as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems), has just issued its White Paper on higher education, setting out its policy agenda. At the heart of this agenda is a simple diagnosis of the sector’s problems: that there is ‘insufficient competition and a lack of informed choice.’

To correct this, the British government is planning a new system that will make it easier for what it calls ‘challenger institutions’ – i.e. private sector for-profit colleges – to enter the market. They will have the opportunity to secure degree-awarding powers and to call themselves ‘universities’. The anticipated result of this (and related) reforms is summarised as follows:

‘With greater diversity in the sector, more high quality entrants, and increased choice for students, our primary goal is to raise the overall level of quality.’

The tone of the whole White Paper reinforces this point: that the existing system is a cartel, that new providers should be allowed to enter, that the strategic development of higher education should follow students’ ‘informed choices’, that the tendency to under-value teaching (when set against research) needs to stop. Student choices, according to the White Paper, are made effective through inter-institutional competition, and better information for student applicants. Meanwhile the pursuit of global recognition for ‘elite’ universities should prompt the further concentration of research in a smaller set of institutions.

Most stakeholders have reacted negatively or cautiously to the proposals in the White Paper. However, if they are implemented a major part of the higher education framework in the UK and beyond will start to look very different from what it once was. This involves not just organisational but intellectual and pedagogical  aspects, elements that have not received half as much attention as the debate around the institutional landscape.

As I have suggested before in this blog, we need to get a lucid and agreed statement on what higher eduction is actually about. Otherwise university reform is just a process of bureaucratic and institutional adjustment, focused strongly on inputs rather than results. There is an important place for competition in higher education, but primarily this should be a competition of ideas rather than of institutions.

Some of the objectives set out in the White Paper are reasonable, and they may spark an interesting debate in the global higher education community. But whether the English university system will become a better one as a result remains to be seen.

The value of student engagement

May 9, 2016

One of the questions the academic community should be asking itself more regularly is what exactly they think is the student’s stake in the higher education framework, beyond that of a learner. Some of this debate would probably these days focus on whether students are, or are not, consumers or customers, and therefore whether they have a right to insist on something like contractual performance from their institutions and teachers. Others might ask whether students have what we might describe as democratic rights of co-determination – a perspective we pursued a little in the review I chaired of Scottish higher education governance, and which has recently been explored in a very interesting Irish report.

One way or another, all this is tied up with how we can secure student engagement – a commitment to learning going beyond managing the curriculum in order to secure a degree. This is something universities do try to encourage in a general way, but perhaps not always in a principled manner, because we have not really settled what the principle is. Some recent studies have revealed one consequence of student disengagement: what could be a gradual death of the classroom experience, as technology gives students access to material independent of their teachers and the socialising effect of classes is no longer recognised or appreciated. So students simply no longer turn up, many of them opting to undertake what are in essence correspondence courses, with very little if any engagement with the corporate entity of their university.

In an age in which the concept of stakeholders in this and that and everything is ubiquitous, we need to do better in securing an understanding of the student’s stake in his or her learning process and the institution that offers it. We have not yet got very far in this, all appearances to the contrary.

Are universities useless in supporting economic development?

April 25, 2016

We have previously considered in this blog whether university programmes of teaching and research should be aligned with economic needs, and there is a variety of views on this point. But a lecturer in St Andrews University, Dr Ross Brown, has now claimed to have discovered in his research that regardless of whether universities should do this or not, they are not effective if they do. According to a report of his research on the university’s website, Dr Brown said:

‘The strongly engrained view of universities as some kind of innovation panacea is deeply flawed. As occurred in the past when inward investment was seen as a ‘silver bullet’ for promoting economic development, university research commercialisation has been granted an equally exaggerated role in political and policy making circles. Universities are not quasi economic development agencies.’

In this short quote there are about 20 different highly arguable points, but the one Dr Brown is particularly promoting is that universities don’t materially support economic development, in that research commercialisation doesn’t have a major impact.

For a start, I don’t think I know of anyone who has ever believed that research commercialisation is the key to economic development. It is a long game, which has the capacity, often over an extended period of many years, to create value for the researchers’ institutions and for those who funded the work (often the taxpayer). When that happens – and it only happens in a minority of cases – the economic impact will often be somewhere else, typically in the place where the last major investor runs their business.

The reason why universities prompt economic development has almost nothing to do with the commercialisation of research. Universities create a cluster of intellectual capital in a place which in turn has the capacity to support the economy: skilled graduates, leadership, facilities and infrastructure, a potential for value-adding partnerships in industry R&D projects – these constitute the raw material for economic development in particular areas. Nor is it hard to find the evidence. There are truckloads of studies that show the impact on value added and economic growth contributed to regions by resident universities; indeed one such study was done by Dr Brown’s own university. There are also studies that show how some regions fail to grow economically where they do not have universities.

I must confess I have not read the original study by Dr Brown, and it may of course be that in it he pursues a quite different argument from that presented in the summary report. Even there he is quoted as recognising the impact of universities, but seems to think that this is not a critical element in assessing their capacity to stimulate growth. In reality it is crucial. The recent Aberdeen City Region Deal is almost wholly based on the capacity of the region’s universities to promote innovation. While I must declare an interest here of course, I very much doubt that the assessment is wrong.

Universities are of course not everything in the drive for economic growth. But they are a very big something.

How valuable is ‘prestige’?

April 4, 2016

Just over 10 years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I hosted a dinner with a small number of executives of a leading US-based multinational company. We had just signed an agreement to undertake a joint research project. As we reflected over dinner on the discussions and negotiations that had produced the agreement, the senior executive of the company said that, as a matter of company policy, they would never seek to enter into any such arrangement with any of the American Ivy League universities. You would, he said, spend too much time negotiating with people who were so in awe of the prestige of their own institution that they could not entertain rational judgements about the value of their contribution to any such deal.

That assessment probably helped us at the time. But on the other hand, a recent article in the Guardian newspaper has suggested that in the higher education landscape prestige is everything. Paul Blackmore, who is Professor of Higher Education at King’s College London, looked at the impact of prestige as perceived by those who work in or lead institutions thought to enjoy it, and found that it has a major impact. One head of such a university is quoted as saying that prestige means that ‘you don’t have to explain yourself’.

Professor Blackmore himself seems to have bought this story, though he hints at some discomfort at its impact. Other recent studies have been more sceptical. An article last year in Investopedia pointed out that the empirical evidence now suggested that the prestige of a graduate’s university mattered rather less than the student’s performance while there – and that those assessing the value of someone’s degree were now statistically more likely not to be graduates of an institution guarding its ancient privileges.

Whatever the truth may be, I would suggest that those of us not leading Ivy League or Russell Group universities should not spend too much time worrying about this one way or another. This is, or should be, the age of excellence, not of aristocracy. We can and should respect traditional institutions that have excelled over the ages, but we should not believe that they are the only models for us to follow; and much less that they are necessarily our elders and betters. The future may well be ours.

The financial health of higher education

March 29, 2016

England’s funding Council, HEFCE, recently release its annual report on the financial health of universities. It found that most were in a sound position. However, it also found that financial stability and robustness were not enjoyed by all institutions; some are in a difficult financial position. The report also highlights some of the problems faced in universities that have over recent years under-invested in capital infrastructure. And it sounds a pessimistic note on the future: the English higher education sector may have to anticipate ‘lower surpluses, a fall in cash levels and a rise in borrowing’.

England is not alone in this situation – similar warnings have been sounded in the United States.

One of the problems is that, after all the changes in the institutional landscape and its regulation, the business model of universities has not changed – but whether this traditional model is still sustainable is less clear. If your income is largely based on public money you may experience difficult times when government itself must tighten its belt, but you may tell yourself that your consolation is that your paymaster is predictable and reliable and that, generally, income fluctuations are not extreme. But the experience all over the developed world has been that the state is finding it increasingly hard to meet its obligations to higher education, so that a financially healthy sector may need to target other revenues much more ambitiously.

In the meantime we will need to see how (or whether) universities with an increasingly tricky balance sheet can remain sustainable. There are many who now predict that the next few years will see universities having to close; that would create a very different higher education narrative.

Widening access – the struggle for progress

March 22, 2016

Most people working in higher education will agree that one of the biggest crimes we can commit is to deny an education to someone with the talent and aptitude to benefit from it. It is also true to say that in 2016 more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in our universities than would have been the case, or would even have been conceivable, a generation or two ago. And yet, as the most recent report on access has reminded us, higher education ‘disproportionately benefits those in our most affiluent communities, meaning that, through accident of birth, those in our most disadvantaged communities have nothing like an equal chance to realise their potential.’

Scotland’s Commission on Widening Access, chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, has set out four guiding principles for public policy on access:

• Equal access is fundamentally about fairness
• Equal access is a social good
• Equal access is compatible with academic excellence
• Equal access is an economic good

These principles seem obvious enough until you realise that, in practice, much of the system doesn’t support them. Academics worry about standards, middle class parents worry about their children being displaced, funding and resources don’t sufficiently target disadvantage. Too many people believe it’s all a matter of free tuition, when almost all of the evidence shows that fees are not the main barrier to widening access.

The Commission chaired by Dame Ruth makes a number of very interesting and potentially exciting recommendations (to some of which I shall return in future), but perhaps the one that will be seen as most difficult is this:

‘By 2019 all universities should set access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed. These access thresholds should be separate to standard entrance requirements and set as ambitiously as possible, at a level which accurately re ects the minimum academic standard and subject knowledge necessary to successfully complete a degree programme.’

This recommendation is about contextual admissions, under which minimum attainment thresholds are set for each course to ensure that students are able to manage the syllabus, but with a recognition that there should be some compensation at the point of entry for applicants who have come from less well resourced schools. In other words, entry requirements for access students should be lower than for other applicants, while maintaining the basic thresholds.

A university education is not as right per se. But having the same opportunity of access to it regardless of background is a right, and a civilised society should ensure that it is protected. Contextual admissions are an indispensable tool in progressing to such a society. I hope that this recommendation will be debated and the best approach assessed; but I hope it will not be resisted.


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