How valuable is ‘prestige’?

Posted April 4, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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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

Posted March 29, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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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

Posted March 22, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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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.

Scotland’s higher education governance

Posted March 15, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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I guess that not everyone can say that they prompted a piece of legislation. In fairness I cannot myself make that claim entirely, since I was merely one of five people who were the panel commissioned by the Scottish Government to review higher education governance. However, I had the honour of chairing the panel, and in 2012 it submitted its report to the government, making 43 recommendations for change. Some of these were implemented, or partly implemented, in the Scottish Code of Good Governance adopted in 2013.

Some of the remaining recommendations have now been implemented in the Higher Education (Scotland) Governance Bill, passed by the Scottish Parliament on 9 March. Once in force the legislation will address, chiefly, the composition of university governing bodies and the appointment (now through an election) of chairs of these bodies.

It would be fair to say that other university Principals, and indeed governing body chairs, did not welcome the legislation, and had not welcomed some of the recommendations of our 2012 report, particularly those that became the basis of the new legislation. But equally I would like to think that the report, and now the legislation, opened up a discussion across the sector, and by now beyond Scotland, about what university governance is for, in whose name it is conducted, and how it can secure academic excellence and organisational success in a spirit of inclusion and transparency. Whether we got it right or wrong, this is an important discussion, as society’s institutions now more generally are subjected to greater scrutiny.

I continue to stand by our recommendations, though of course I also hope that university leaders will be able to work constructively and effectively in the new setting. Higher education in its substance has been renewed and reinvented over the past generation or two, and it was always going to be important that governance was also addressed. I believe that Scotland, with its Code (shortly to be revised) and now its legislation, will make a major contribution to this discussion globally.

That Newcastle show, off the rails [football/soccer alert]

Posted March 7, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: society, sport

Tags: , , ,

Every so often this blog leaves the higher education world behind and engages with that crazy crazy world of Newcastle United FC. Being a Newcastle supporter can be incredibly exciting at times, but more often than not seems just an exercise in needless masochism.

It is not that Newcastle lose games – all clubs and teams do. It is not that there can be longer periods during which things just don’t go right; that’s what makes being a football supporter such fun. Rather, it is because those who take decisions in the club seem to be so determinedly inconsistent, irrational, amateurish, unintelligent. They buy and sell players at the wrong time, they appoint managers and ‘head coaches’ who seem to have no claim to the role apart from an established recent record of failure, they ban communications with the media to ensure all news coverage is bad, they maintain management structures no one understands and no one can operate effectively. And then they seem totally surprised that none of this works perfectly. And because it hasn’t worked this time and last time and the time before that, they try it again just in case it’s going to work now.

So what have we got? An expensive team that should produce results but whose members stroll aimlessly around the pitch during matches. A ‘head coach’ who seems not to have any sense of strategy or tactics and who comments after the game as if he were just a disappointed supporter, not the leader. An owner of very questionable business practices who seems to measure success for a football club with quite different metrics from the rest of us.

What needs to be done? Well, whether he is a nice man or not, the club needs to part company with Steve McClaren. It is abundantly clear that he cannot do the job. It needs to appoint in his place someone whose availability is not occasioned by a string of recent failures in other places. It needs to develop and keep to a clear strategy of battling and (when possible) winning on the field, not on the financial spreadsheets. It needs ambition,  swashbuckling determination, a sense of adventure.

But beyond Newcastle, club football needs to return to being just that. Much of the fun went out of the sport when it became a money game measured by the depths of the owners’ pockets (and strategic common sense). I’m normally all for free enterprise, but actually not in this setting. Football should be a game played for and on behalf of the supporters, not the oligarchs now dominating it. Clubs should be owned by those supporters. It is time to re-socialise football.

Humanities and science: an unequal competition?

Posted March 1, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was discussed last year in the Observer newspaper by the writer Alex Preston. He argued that an attack on the humanities set in under Margaret Thatcher, who attempted to centralise control over universities:

‘She asserted more government power over the universities in an attempt to strong-arm them into complying with her vision of an entrepreneurial, vocational education system.’

According to Preston this has led today to a culture of higher education bureaucracy that spends (wastes?) money on ‘bureaucrats hired to manage the transformation of universities from centres of learning to profit centres.’ In this world the humanities are an immediate target because they are ‘less readily yoked to the needs of the corporate world.’

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. In the meantime one of the welcome developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research.

So is there really a war against the humanities? It is probably unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth and benefits. But it is also vital that the university sector overall demonstrates – and is encouraged and funded to demonstrate – the value of the humanities, arts and social sciences. For this to be done satisfactorily, the value and ethos of higher education as a whole needs a more principled expression than it now often gets. That may be the first task to be addressed. And if I may be permitted a bit of self-indulgence, there are worse places to start the reflection than in the introduction to the report of the 2012 review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland (which I chaired).

The higher education freedom of information dilemma

Posted February 23, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, law

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During the past academic year, my university received 294 information requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Of these, 60 requests came from journalists or journalism students (the latter often given this as a task by their lecturers). Others came from a variety of people or organisation whose reasons for asking were not always clear. But significantly, 20 per cent of the requests came from companies or commercial organisations seeking information to assist them in putting business propositions to the university. Answering these requests took up 1.6 hours on average for each request – leading to a total in aggregate of six working weeks.

I bring this up because the Herald newspaper has reported that Scotland’s universities would like to be exempted from this particular burden, in line with a call to this effect made by Universities UK. In the Scottish context Universities Scotland is reported as saying:

‘Scotland’s HEIs are committed to transparency, which is guaranteed through the Scottish Code of Good HE Governance and many other regulatory requirements. However, they would welcome the removal of FoI obligations, which impose a very high administrative burden on institutions and, consequently, the diversion of resources away from core educational and research activity.’

It is of course a sensitive issue. Journalists’ investigations have revealed some uncomfortable stories from higher education, and freedom of information is an important journalistic tool. I suspect most university heads would agree with that. But is it our duty to spend public money on providing information to private companies wanting to business with us? Is it our duty to allocate serious staff time to queries which are unconnected with any public interest issues?

Its is, I suspect, inconceivable that the universities will be removed from the freedom of information framework. However, it is important that freedom of information is exercised in a way calculated to assure the general public that high standards of ethics and probity are employed in higher education, while not drowning the institutions in a sea of bureaucracy, staff time and costs. The time is right to review the system.


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