What next for universities?

Posted January 8, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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.


Begin again

Posted January 1, 2019 by universitydiary
Categories: society


Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

             Alfred Tennyson, from In Memoriam

Looking back on any given year on the last day of December is rarely an exercise of dispassionate historical analysis.  Everything is still too new, or too raw. Also, why attempt to undertake any analysis at all of a period of time as arbitrary as 365 days? But we do it still, because we need milestones, and midnight at the end of the calendar year is such.

Who knows how any of us will view 2018 in a decade or two from now, but right at this moment I am glad to see it go, and I’ll hope for something better in the next twelvemonth. And that is also what I wish for all of you, and for this fragile world of ours.

Happy New Year!

The heroic pedant?

Posted December 18, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society

Tags: ,

Here’s a strange story, you might think. Last week on the Isle of Wight a warning sign erected to alert motorists that pedestrians might be crossing the road was removed after complaints were received by the police that it was grammatically incorrect. It is crazy, some have suggested, to prioritise correct grammar over road safety, and indeed to involve the police in this endeavour. In fact you might ponder whether the constabulary are being called upon to feel the collars of greengrocers displaying errant apostrophes when selling tomatoes, or of the writers of reports eschewing the required subjunctive in appropriate contexts.

Well, if I were (not ‘was’) a policeman, I might think that knife crime is a better object of my attentions. But does that mean that we should all just enjoy the carnival of grammar chaos rather than get exercised by the inability of the population to see the difference between its and it’s? Should we worry that nobody now seems to know when to use ‘me’ and when to say ‘I’? We could of course point to the history of the English language, and the fact that rules of grammar were something of a latecomer to the party. And if we really hate the sort of person who keeps correcting others, we might alert them to research that suggests they suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

However, there are arguments in favour of linguistic pedantry. A friend of mine has pointed out that there is a difference between a ‘walking stick’ and a ‘walking-stick’, the former being a stick that walks. We might not expect to encounter an autonomous ambulatory stick, but there are plenty of misunderstandings that could in other contexts be caused by a missing or wrongly-placed hyphen. Language is about communication, and precision of meaning is not unimportant, particularly in certain settings. We should perhaps not be exercised by what we hear on the street or by what we see in a greengrocer’s shop window, but in more formal settings we should continue to encourage the observance of rules that support effective communication and preserve the richness of the English language.

We’re learning to disrespect respect, and it’s not good.

Posted December 11, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

Tags: , ,

Back in the 1980s I remember watching a political debate on television, in which two well-known politicians engaged in robust disagreement. Just a few hours later I was on a plane from the city in which they had been arguing, and found to my surprise that the same two politicians were sitting next to each other engaging in what was clearly very friendly banter. A good thing, or a bad thing? Were they, in a sort-of-private setting, subverting the integrity of their political disagreement by being friendly to each other? Or was this a sign of maturity and civilised human interaction?

Of course we can still sometimes see this sort of private bonhomie between political opponents, but not so often. Recently the UK Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, suggested that he could never be friends with a member of the Conservative Party. What this kind of approach suggests is that politics is not so much about choices, but about ethics: whatever political frame of reference I hold is the only valid one, and therefore if you don’t agree with me, you are not so much wrong as evil.

Respect, baby, as Aretha Franklin might have said, is at the heart of civilisation. We lose it and we’re all on skids. Of course we should have principles and we should argue our case, but if we come to believe that our opponents are our enemies and are hateful evildoers, then we become incapable of persuading our entire society to believe in a cause, because we hold many of its members in contempt as enemies of the people. It’s what has characterised the Brexit debate, or Mr Trump’s America. Trust me, this isn’t the way to go. Don’t disrespect respect.

PS. If you’re sharpening your quill to tell me it was Otis Redding and not Aretha, save yourself the bother. I prefer her version, which is subtly different. Though I totally love Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, which by a happy coincidence is playing in the background as I write this.

Understanding student loneliness

Posted December 4, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: students, university

Tags: , ,

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.

Going electric

Posted November 27, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society, technology

Tags: ,

Nearly three months ago, I made a major change: I bought an electric car. Not a hybrid, but a fully electric vehicle without an internal combustion engine and therefore without any fuel tank. In some ways the change might not seem massive. I still put my foot on the accelerator pedal to get moving, or on the brake to stop. The steering wheel moves the car to the left or to the right. I indicate when I intend to turn. And so forth.

And yet, this is a fundamentally different experience. The car moves more or less noiselessly. It is heavily computerised, and almost every control is operated not by a lever or button, but on the touchscreen. You ignore filling stations, but spend some time planning your journey (if it’s a longer one) so that you know where you will charge the car. It feels like being part of something quite revolutionary, even when so much of it is the same.

And yet, is this the future, or just a staging post to the real thing? Will we soon be in an era in which we won’t drive our own cars at all any more, but call an autonomous self-driving vehicle that takes us where we want to go and then moves off somewhere else? Or indeed will we still take it for granted at all that we can travel at will from A to B?

Transport habits can change at a certain tipping point with extraordinary speed. In this image you can see New York’s 5th Avenue in 1900 and 1913. In these 13 years the traffic changed from almost entirely horse-drawn to entirely motorised. What will happen between 2018 and 2030 is not at all clear, but there is every likelihood of fundamental change; and there should be, not least because we need to stop urban air pollution.

So maybe I am taking part in something important. Or maybe it is just a very minor step towards something that will, in a short space of time, be quite different. We’ll see.

A question of money

Posted November 20, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: university


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,