Where would you find the higher education elite?

Posted February 27, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

Tags: , , ,

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.


Finding value in higher education

Posted February 19, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: ,

Today the British government launched a new review of English higher education, the aim being ‘to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone’. This review has been heavily trailed for some time, and appears to be based on a sense of uneasiness with the existing framework. One particular angle was given expression by the Prime Minister in her speech announcing the review: she suggested that higher education was influenced by ‘outdated attitudes’, and that in particular there was too much much of a tendency to maintain a gulf between higher and further education.

The terms of reference of the review set out further concerns with the existing system:

‘… The system has encouraged growth in three-year degrees for 18 year-olds, but does not offer a comprehensive range of high quality alternative routes for the many young people who pursue a technical or vocational path at this age. The majority of universities charge the maximum possible fees for at least some of their courses and three-year courses remain the norm. Average levels of graduate debt have increased, but this has not always led to higher wage returns for all graduates. And the system does not comprehensively deliver the advanced technical skills that our economy needs.’

In the meantime, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, in a television interview on Sunday suggested that a problem with the current system in England was its pricing uniformity: as the BBC reported, he suggested that tuition fees should reflect each degree’s value to society:

‘What we need to look at is the different aspects of pricing – the cost that it is to put on the course, the value that it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future.’

This again raises a number of questions about the value of higher education, and how that should relate to is cost. This is a complex issue in a system that bases university funding on tuition fees paid by students, but in a tightly regulated framework. Higher education in England is not a market (which few in the UK would want it to be), in the sense that universities cannot base their fees on supply and demand. But if not a market, then what? It is not offered as a social service, either. Indeed, it is much easier to say what it is not than to suggest what, in public policy terms, it actually is.

So the problem with the expectations that this new review may raise is that it is unclear what political perspective the UK government wants to adopt to inform its higher education strategy. Some of what we know is laudable: the drive for more participation by disadvantaged groups, for example. But it is hard to see an overall philosophical direction in the government’s pronouncements and actions.

In fairness, many (and not just the UK government) struggle to articulate and pursue a clear higher education policy. Is it all about protecting and resourcing a public good? Is it about recognising the benefits to the individual of a degree and extracting a contribution from that individual? Is it about meeting society’s skills needs? Back in 1963 the Robbins report set out a clear vision of turning what had been a benefit for the elite into a national resource. The sheer success of that vision eventually made its continued development difficult, because of the enormous cost involved. It will be interesting to see whether this new review, chaired by City equities broker Philip Augar, is able to make a significant contribution to finding a new vision that is based on a coherent outlook and is capable of being implemented successfully.

Frankly, that is quite a challenge.

My friend Gavin

Posted February 12, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society

Tags: , , ,

“Hi Ferdinand”. This was the friendly salutation in the first email I opened this morning. But then came one of those phrases I particularly hate in emails, and in letters for that matter: “I hope this email finds you well.” At that point I could safely say that the email didn’t “find” me well, mainly because it had actually found its way to me.

“Regarding your marketing needs in your company, can we arrange to have a chat on the phone later this week.” No question mark at the end of that sentence, by the way. If I were to reply to this, the text of my reply might be “Fat chance”, or words to that effect.

Two other irritants. The email is signed “Gavin”, with no surname, and a company name, but no indication of what role Gavin plays in the organisation. The subject line is “Your query”. Now if I had the time and energy to focus on Gavin, I would indeed have a query or two, but none related to his ability to service the marketing needs of “my company”.

Of course we all know about the spam problem. In 2016 it was estimated that 59 per cent of all email traffic was spam – which, mind you, was an improvement on the 71 per cent estimated for April 2014. But actually that’s not my issue here. Gavin wasn’t selling me Viagra from dubious sources, or offering me the chance to meet some desirable Russian ladies. Gavin, in fact, works for a quite reputable company which I have come across a few times and which, I believe, offers an appropriately professional service. So what on earth has persuaded Gavin that this is a good way to get my business?

So for all the Gavins out there, don’t do this. Not because it annoys me (though it does), but because you won’t get my business this way, even if your product looks interesting. Your email is destined for the bin. Don’t address me as if I were one of your oldest friends, if we have never met. Don’t address me at all if your product or service is obviously handled by someone else in my organisation. Don’t suggest I run a “company”, at least make the effort to find out what kind of institution this is. Don’t suggest a “chat”, or even a cup of coffee. Don’t, in fact, be such a complete pillock.

A learning society?

Posted February 5, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: ,

Since about the late 1980s, one of the key assumptions of all higher education planning has been that university education would not in future be mainly focused on the learner progression of school leavers but would be available to people at various stages of their lives and for different reasons. The concept of ‘lifelong learning’ was born, and it informed a good bit of education policy over the ensuing decades.

But has something changed? In the reporting of a noticeable drop in university applications in Ireland just now, one element of this that has received special mention is the decline in applications by mature students. This has been put down in part to the current economic recovery, which it is suggested has made continuing education less attractive to those already in employment.

But this decline in mature student numbers has not been unique to Ireland. In England the decline has been attributed to the impact of tuition fees.

Whatever the reason, if we are going to see fewer mature students (usually referred to as ‘adult learners’ in the United States) then this will have an impact on planning in higher education at various levels. It is time to re-state what public policy actually is in this area, and how it can best be realised.

Inflation buster?

Posted January 30, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

The Times Higher Education journalist (and director of the journal’s global rankings), Phil Baty, recently ran an informal Twitter poll in which he asked whether it was time to abandon degree classification and adopt the grade point average framework. Of those who responded, 65 per cent were in favour of this particular reform. This is not of course a scientific survey, but has it become more and more inevitable, in the light of the claimed trend of grade inflation, that there will be change in the traditional way of classifying student performance?

Or is the time right for this particular reform, but for reasons unrelated to the charge of grade inflation? Some UK universities have already adopted the grade point average system – it may make sense to review how this has worked for them.

The never-ending epilogue to today’s message

Posted January 28, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society


Sometimes you just need to get something off your chest, so this is today’s lament – bear with me.

I received an email today. The substance of the message was contained in five words, three of which were ‘kind regards’ and a name. Nevertheless, despite this admirably concise communication, the email was, according to my computer, 190 KB in size, and if I had printed it (which I didn’t) it would have covered almost two entire pages.

Why was this? Because the organisation to which my correspondent belonged automatically inserts one hell of a ‘signature’ at the foot of every email sent. This contains a long and hugely convoluted formula telling us for what the organisation concerned does or does not (mostly not) accept legal liability, and what you or I should do if we were to stumble upon the email without being the intended recipient. It then adds a paragraph about the organisation itself, not sparing some considerable detail in praising its no doubt wonderful achievements. It then adds a whole lot of contact information, at which point you find that the organisation has offices in six countries around the world, all of which are set out in some detail. It then repeats some of all this is another language. And, finally, it inserts into the signature a number of images with logos, a photo of its head office, and some graphics the meaning and purpose of which rather eluded me.

This is perhaps a particularly bad case of this kind of genre, but it is by no means unique. Some of these add-ons have been pressed upon organisations by our friends the lawyers, who seem to think that we must all insert endless legal exemption and non-liability clauses into emails that no one ever thought were or are necessary in letters. Others have been prompted by the perceived need to let no electronic communication pass without lots of PR stuff chucked in.

My strong wish for 2018 and beyond that people stop doing this. Really, stop. Give it up.

The hard slog for university gender equality

Posted January 22, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , , ,

In the late 1980s I addressed a session of the annual meeting of the Conference of University Personnel Administrators – as it was then called: it is now Universities Human Resources (UHR). At the time I was a Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, and one of my specialisms was equality and discrimination in employment. I was asked to reflect on the state of gender equality in universities. So I told the more or less all-male audience that universities, however progressive they liked to think they were, had an abysmal record as regards equality. The percentage of senior university academics or managers who were women was tiny, and many universities refused to do much about it because they were totally convinced that all their policies and actions were totally non-discriminatory. As one of the university managers suggested in the subsequent discussion (and I wrote this down), ‘if no competent women willing and able to do the job properly apply for senior posts, what can we do?’

Thirty years later, what would I be saying at the conference now? Well, in fairness, we have come on a little. But it has been slow going. About 12 years after my address I became President of Dublin City University. At the date of my appointment, it did not have a single woman professor. Not one. By the time I left this had somewhat improved, but gender equality in the academy had by then become a big issue in Ireland, with the discussion focusing rightly on how inadequate progress was.

Most recently, it has been reported that 23.7 per cent of professors in Scottish universities are women. This is an improvement on the last time that the figures were reported, but clearly there is still some way to go before women are represented in senior positions in accordance with their overall share of the university population. My own university, Robert Gordon University, performs well above the average, with women making up 50 per cent of the professoriate.

Maybe we have come at least some way, because no one would now, I suspect, ask ‘what can we do?’ We know that we can do things. One bundle of these things has been highlighted in the Antwerp Charter on Gender-Sensitive Communication in and by Academic Institutions, highlighting ‘academic institutional communication’ as a vital driver or inhibitor of equality. The Charter was developed as part of the EGERA Project (‘Effective Gender Equality in Research and Academia’), involving a consortium of eight continental European universities, and focusing on structural changes and processes for implementing greater equality as well as the actual equality objectives themselves.

In the United Kingdom the Equality Challenge Unit (shortly to be merged with the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation) is the key champion of ‘equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education institutions’, and it has had some effect in raising awareness of the issues that still inhibit equality. It offers guidance to institutions in a number of different contexts.

Progress is being made, but there has not to date been complete success. The ultimate driver of success is a change of culture, which includes a greater focus on how we take decisions, how we communicate, how we interact with each other and offer support, how we expect people to structure their lives and working environment. The need to advance equality remains strong. And we could all still do better.