Archive for the ‘university’ category

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.

The academic network

September 28, 2015

No doubt the internet creates challenges for academic integrity, but it also provides interesting tools for scholarship. One of these (founded in 2008) is the website, which allows academics to upload their published or unpublished work and get readers, citations and comments. It is intended partly as a tool for academic interaction and the exchange of ideas – a worldwide network of colleagues and contacts one might previously have found only in one’s immediate circle of collaborators.

The publishing house Sage has also created an academic networking site, Methodspace (mainly, I suspect, as a prospecting tool to find promising authors).

More mainstream social networking sites also contain pages that link particular groups of academics.

It has often been suggested that, for many academics, the primary community to which they belong is not their institution but their discipline. As a lawyer, for example, I am often more connected with law academics in other universities than, say, biochemists in my own. As it becomes easier and easier to network with these colleagues across the world, will this further loosen institutional cohesion? This is one of the challenges facing universities today, one that makes it important to present faculty with opportunities to link across disciplines and promote a sense of institutional relevance.

A global academic community is one of the real benefits of today’s technology, and should be celebrated. But a university that is able to bind together its members in an overall purpose is also still important, particularly as cross-disciplinary insights become more and more relevant to global problems. Universities need to be able to work with both dimensions.

Bingo, it’s a cliché

September 15, 2015

As academics all over the Northern hemisphere usher in the new academic year and all its activities, they will no doubt be enjoying the new round of committee meetings. One way of passing the time at these, according to an American website, is to play a game of bingo that spots various clichés and behaviour patterns. Some of it is very familiar on this side of the Atlantic, some of it less so (do people here talk about ‘the guy with the short shorts’?).

So perhaps we need our own bingo cards. I’m open to relevant entries.

Parental care

September 7, 2015

A few years ago I recruited a very impressive American to work for my university. As could be expected, he encountered a number of cultural issues in his new place of work, but most of them he was able to deal with appropriately. One that he found particularly difficult, however, was our reluctance to engage in any way the parents of our actual or prospective students, except during university open days. He was used to parents being a key stakeholder group with whom universities would engage on a regular basis, keeping them informed of their daughters’ or son’s progress and of the university’s plans and achievements. We did no such thing. Indeed if parents contacted us about their children, we would routinely tell them, politely I hope, that we could not discuss them with ‘third parties’ – a category that included parents.

I confess that I have felt particularly committed to this approach because, often, parents tended to push their children in all the wrong directions, in particular by pressing them to do courses because of the social standing this would give their offspring (rather than choosing courses to fit the children’s talents and interests).

And yet of course parents are a genuine stakeholder group. Their influence in the choice of university and courses is usually significant, and of course the years that follow often see parents having to make major financial investments in their children, even where there are no tuition fees. The role that parents play is now often recognised and promoted. And to return to America, some universities there now contact parents when students misbehave.

Perhaps we need to think again and to strike a more reasonable balance between the correct recognition of the personal autonomy of students and the legitimate interest of parents (though perhaps less so in the case of mature students). Or perhaps that interest is better expressed in communications between the students and their families, without university involvement? Even if that is so, involving parents in discussions about institutional strategy and priorities cannot be a bad thing.

The never-ending accumulation of courses? Or no change at all?

September 1, 2015

Recently the University of Stirling is reported to have indicated that ‘consideration is being given’ to ‘the sustainability of religious studies’, one of its courses. Current students are being assured that they will be able to complete their studies, but apparently there are no guarantees beyond that. This news has led to a number of actions, including a petition, and statements of support for the continuation of the course from various prominent people. And of course there is a lively social media campaign. Some of the efforts to stop the closure can be viewed here.

Stirling University itself does not seem to have offered any comment at all – certainly the news section of its website makes no reference to the issue; and that may not be an ideal way of communicating. However, it is not my intention to critique the decision, not least because I know nothing about the university’s reasons, or even intentions. But there is a wider issue here that universities have to grapple with: at a time of limited resources and income, how can any institution develop and innovate if it cannot let go anything it has already accumulated?

Times change, knowledge changes, resources change, fashions change, demand changes – and all of this must produce changes over time in a university’s offering. Too often, however, what this means is that universities offer new courses and programmes while also holding on to everything they have already got, even where demand for some has dropped. Every so often statistics are released showing that specific courses continue with tiny numbers.

Universities are often quite bad at discontinuing things – which realistically they must do; but then again, when they try, they often face howls of protest from within and without the institution. In 2010 Middlesex University decided to close its Philosophy department, a move that led immediately to an outcry and the attendant petitions. How can such steps then be taken? Or if they cannot, is it in practice not acceptable for a university to re-envision what it does?

Stirling University may be right or may be wrong to consider closing religious studies (if indeed it is doing that), and Middlesex University may have been wrong in 2010 (as I suspect it was). And yet, you cannot keep a university alive and well without taking some difficult decisions from time to time. We do not seem to be able to work out how to do that, and do it with the support and consent of the wider community of stakeholders. This is something that we will need to get better at.

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.


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