Archive for the ‘university’ category

The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

August 24, 2015

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.

From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity

August 17, 2015

Back in the early 1990s, a British trade union developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed to be offensive to anyone with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, and before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one or two more of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

It is sometimes suggested that this kind of over-sensitivity has reached university campuses. In an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set out a fairly disturbing picture of American universities being subjected to increasing pressure not to let anyone say anything that could possibly offend or disturb someone of a very thin-skinned disposition. Examples given are pressure applied not to teach rape law in a law school, or not to make English literature students read The Great Gatsby (because it ‘portrays misogyny and physical abuse’). With this a (to me at least) new concept has been introduced: that of the ‘microaggression’. This is described as ‘small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless’ – such as asking someone from an ethnic minority where they were born.

It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them. But this should not mean encouraging people to make a great effort to find things offensive. Universities need to prepare students for the world, and it is a world in which they cannot be protected from such stuff at all times. Furthermore, the university must maintain a culture of curiosity and inquiry, which should not be restricted just because in some contexts not everything is completely lovely. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, if this approach is abandoned it will damage students both intellectually and mentally.

Respect and sensitivity must be part of any university’s framework of values. But at the same time, universities are there to challenge and  stimulate. This task becomes impossible if every innocuous statement has to be examined again and again before it is made, in case somebody unexpectedly might contrive to be offended by it. The academy’s educational mission must stay on the right side of intellectual vacuity.

All in a day’s work?

August 11, 2015

A recent survey conducted (as far as I can tell) in England has revealed that 77 per cent of university students have a paid job. More strikingly, 14 per cent have full-time jobs while studying.

Of course students working is not a new phenomenon; when I was a student many of us did some sort of paid work while at university. But in those days it tended to be during holidays, and not everyone felt any real pressure to earn money. Nowadays more students come from backgrounds where they cannot expect parents and families to provide funding, and costs (in particular accommodation costs) are much higher. Of course work can be an enriching experience for students (and course-related work placements are excellent), but when financial pressures are piled on and working hours invade study time it becomes a different matter.

This is another reason why public money needs to be targeted more specifically at those who most need it, so that earning money does not crowd out studies.  Universities also need to be stronger advocates for students, so that society understands that financial pressures must not compromise the opportunity to learn.

Talking points: For heaven’s sake stop obsessing about mergers

August 5, 2015

The extraordinary public policy obsession in Ireland with the idea that merged multi-campus institutes of technology must inevitably be more university-like than stand-alone ones continues. A report by the former chair of the Higher Education Authority, Michael Kelly, has just been published and welcomed by the Minister for Education. It is being seen as a potential blueprint for renewed merger discussions between Waterford and Carlow Institutes, as a merger is a requisite for achieving ‘technological university’ status (in itself a very doubtful concept). Michael Kelly’s report, apart from introducing the unattractive acronym TUSE for the proposed ‘technological university’, provides little evidence that a merger would advance the key quality criteria for a university; indeed the report recognises that to date collaboration between the two did not really develop because of the different nature of the two institutes and their lack of physical proximity.

I can absolutely see the case for a University of Waterford. I can see no case for a merger between two largely incompatible institutions, one of which manifestly is not of university level standing. This policy makes no sense whatsoever.

There really is a need to re-think ‘Technological Universities’

June 2, 2015

As I have pointed out previously, I am not a supporter of the plans in Ireland to establish ‘technological universities’ through forced marriages between institutes of technology. The very questionable nature of these endeavours is now further underlined by the burgeoning costs of the process of discussion between institutes leading up to the proposed mergers and the subsequent applications for ‘technological university’ status. An article in the Irish Times suggested that the cost of these discussions to date has been ‘over €3 million’, before anybody has even got to the point of a formal merger proposal.

While I genuinely respect those who have been working on the legal framework and in the discussions between institutes, I remain of the view that the whole scheme is daft, based on assumptions that would stand up to very little scrutiny. There may well be a case for assessing whether individual institutes are of university standard, but compelling institutes to merge with each other, creating unwieldy multi-location institutions that will almost certainly run into trouble early on.

I suspect it’s too late, but now would be a good time to re-think the whole framework. It’s costly and complex, and it’s not going to work.

Demonstrating the value of higher education

June 2, 2015

One of the most disagreeable experiences during my time as President of Dublin City University was attending a debate in Dáil Eireann (Irish Parliament) on higher education, about ten years ago now. The topic of the debate was higher education, and more particularly whether universities were receiving adequate funding. One after another, TDs (members of the Parliament) got up and read from (or more usually recited from memory) letters they said they had received from members of the public complaining of waste and malpractice in the institutions.

But there was also another theme running through the contributions: that universities were receiving huge sums of public money, and that this lavish expenditure was not producing any impact. The country had huge economic and social needs but the universities – so the claim went – were not making much of a contribution to their resolution.

As I have noted previously and elsewhere, it is of vital importance that universities seek and maintain the confidence of wider stakeholder groups; not doing so endangers our sustainability. But on this occasion what was going through my mind was how little the country’s legislators understood the benefits society derived from universities; not just in terms of the wider education provided, but in the discoveries and innovation coming out of higher education institutions that powered the economy and secured social progress. If we are really measuring impact, it is huge.

Virtually all universities can demonstrate a dramatic impact. The scale of this is demonstrated by the ‘impact case studies’ that have been published in the aftermath of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. My own university, for example, is shown to have provided benefits to society in areas such as artists working in the public sphere, good practice in the treatment of asylum seekers, mental health needs of people affected by disasters or major incidents, obesity management, data-driven decision-making, energy and the environment, and so forth. Other examples are shown in respect of pretty much every UK university.

Ten years ago I wanted to stand up and tell the parliamentarians that they could make few better and more impact-driven investments of public money than in higher education. That is still very much true ten years on.

The end of the business school?

May 18, 2015

University business schools are sometimes even better known than their parent universities. Of course everyone knows about Harvard University, but Harvard Business School is probably mentioned even more in conversation and discourse. In relative terms business schools are a recent development in higher education. Many people assume it was an American invention, but actually the United States came late to the party. The first business schools, dedicated specifically to teaching business or commerce courses, emerged in France from the early 19th century, and then spread to other European countries. It was not until 1881 that the first American Business School – the Wharton School of Pennsylvania University – opened its doors. Though Wharton declares on its website that it was the first globally, in reality it wasn’t. Britain had its first business school in 1902.

But the real surge of business schools occurred somewhat later, from the 1960s onwards, and even in the past decade new schools were still being established. Some of these were stand-alone institutions not affiliated to any bigger university; some have had a semi-autonomous status in association with a university; some are integrated Faculty units.

The rise of the business school was accompanied by the rise of its flagship educational programme, the Master of Business Administration (MBA). This was an American invention, with the first one set up by Harvard Business School in 1908. The MBA did not appear anywhere outside the United States until after the Second World War. But by the 1980s it was ubiquitous, the most common taught postgraduate degree in the world, and also a uniquely profitable programme offered at a relatively low cost. Whole universities began to rely on the revenues from business schools and their MBAs.

But from about 2000 voices began to be heard predicting the decline of the MBA, and with it the decline of business schools. By the time the downturn and recession came later in the decade, such voices became more urgent. In 2009 the New York Times ran an article by Kelley Holland suggesting that MBA programmes may actually have contributed to the economic crisis as business schools had ‘become too detached from real world issues’. And now more recently others have come forward suggesting that a significant number of business schools may actually fail. The Dean of the Haas Business School at Berkeley has predicted the ‘demise’ of half of the world’s 10,000 business schools.

There is little doubt that a number of things are potentially conspiring to make the future of business schools more uncertain: technology, demographics, economics, and changes in how companies see the career development of their managers. It is also clear that the MBA is not the gold standard of business education that it once was. However, predictions of its complete disappearance have not come true, and to some extent it is a more resilient product than some have expected.

What can be seen however is that there is no longer a single model for a business school; but maybe there never was. Some focus on postgraduate or indeed executive education, some are integrated and include all levels of formation and training. But one trend that may be emerging is the disappearance of stand-alone business schools, not associated with any larger university.

Business schools need to be part of the strategic model of a parent university, and need to share that parent’s educational, scholarly and pedagogical perspective. Business schools will always be expected to make money, but they need to have a vision that goes beyond a financial model. With that vision, business schools, in all their variety, may be with us for some time yet.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 860 other followers