Posted tagged ‘DCU’

Getting to be a university

June 6, 2010

Just over twenty years ago the National Institute for Higher Education (Dublin) became Dublin City University. Legally the change came about as a result of the Dublin City University Act 1989, but this piece of legislation was itself the culmination of a detailed and lengthy process of analysis and review. As a result of the statute, the institution could call itself a ‘university’ and was able for the first time to award its own degrees.

While the transition from NIHE to DCU was complex, it is not necessarily so for every institution globally that wants to assume university status. So for example, in May the board of the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, United States, simply voted to change the college’s status, and once certain transitional issues have been resolved the name and status change will take effect. Notre Dame College (not to be confused with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana) is a small women’s college which has, over the years, developed its portfolio to include postgraduate and doctoral degree programmes. Its decision to change, taken after extensive consultation, was intended to reflect the institution’s changing profile.

Right now in Ireland, some of the current institutes of technology are seeking to become universities, while the rest have suggested that, collectively, they may become constituent units of a new federal ‘National Technological University of Ireland’. Within the existing Irish legal framework, in order for any such proposals to become reality, the government must establish an international group of experts to consider the case under section 9 of the Universities Act 1997. Without such a process, no institution in Ireland may legally call itself a ‘university’.

I suppose that one of the concerns in Ireland has been that as we seek to develop our credentials in the world as a knowledge society we should be careful about letting institutions adopt the title ‘university’, unless they can demonstrate that they engage in teaching and scholarship of international quality. This concern is heightened by the experience of having some fly-by-night operations claiming to be based in Ireland call themselves a ‘university’. Perhaps unlike the United States, we cannot afford to have our credentials called into question by such bogus institutions.

Nevertheless, are we too cautious about the whole thing? Should we be rather more relaxed about the process that determines transition to university status? It may not be easy to answer that question, or at any rate it isn’t easy unless and until we develop a better understanding of what we think a university is. In particular, how much diversity of mission would we be prepared to accept within the sector?

As President of DCU, I am acutely aware that back in 1989 by no means all of the academic community nationally agreed with the transition of this institution to university status. In the end the case was made by the consistent scholarship of its academics, the strength of its research profile, and the quality of its teaching programmes. I take the view that DCU’s position and role within the university sector stimulated significant changes in all of the universities, and that we have been successful promoters of reform and change within a framework of international excellence. We should allow for the possibility that others can also succeed in such a role. I believe that we must protect the integrity of the academic community, but this should not imply that we can only accept a very traditional model of higher education.

I know very little about the College of Notre Dame, but I wish it well. However, I suspect that in the end some more formal process for authorising a change to university status would be better, provided that such a process is not there mainly to keep out newcomers.

Photo #1 of 2010

January 10, 2010

Here is a photograph taken yesterday in Albert College Park, Dublin City University.

2009 Photo of the week #2

December 24, 2009

This one shows the DCU entrance avenue from Ballymun Road on a slightly misty late autumn day this year.

The final lap

July 6, 2009

I confess that it is a strange experience to see your post advertised in the media – a little bit like reading your own obituary,  except that the obituary writer seems only marginally interested in you. Well, the job of President of Dublin City University has now been advertised, and the search is on. Don’t get either too worried, or too excited in joyful anticipation: I have another 53 or so weeks to go in the post, and then I will have completed my ten years (the limit for a university president’s term of office set by the Universities Act 1997). With any luck, my successor will have been identified a little while before then to allow for a smooth handover.

I am a committed supporter of the concept of limited tenure for Presidents, and I believe that after ten years it is better for the institution to get some new leadership, so I am not at all complaining. But on the other hand, I know I shall miss the role, for this is a dream job which I have enjoyed and am enjoying immensely. Universities are unlike most other kinds of organisation, and generally don’t respond well to an authoritarian leadership style; on the other hand, they need to be purpose driven and focused in facing their challenges. And so leadership is about understanding the institutional culture, prompting strategic action and recognising excellence and dedication. Sometimes it is about taking tough decisions and feeling the heat. And it is about interpreting the university to its own community and to its external stakeholders. I may be good or bad at any of these things, but I feel it is a joy and a privilege to hold this post, and I believe I have at least one of the attributes that are needed to be a president: I admire and respect the institution, and feel a great pride in its achievements. I genuinely believe that DCU is the most exciting university in Ireland, with some of the most talented staff.

But now, before I start writing my own (rather biased) obituary, there is business still to be done. Nine years ago I might have expected that my final year would be a year of gradually easing out of the affairs of the university. That looks unlikely. As luck would have it, my final year at DCU is also going to be the most challenging year – arguably ever – for the university sector in Ireland (and probably globally). Most of the assumptions we were taking for granted a year or two ago are now forgotten or under severe threat: the idea of continuing long term expansion, further major capital investment in higher education infrastructure, the rapid commercialisation of research, growing staff numbers, institutional autonomy. The only assumption that many people now dare to hold is that however pessimistic you are, you are probably under-estimating the problems.

In relation to almost any issue that matters to the future of the higher education system, the die will be cast over the coming 12 months, prompted by the next government Budget, by the outcome of the strategic review of higher education, by the decision on tuition fees promised for later this year, by the results of what may be the last (for a while) major research infrastructure investment by the state, by the decisions about to be made affecting university autonomy and quality assurance, by discussions on strategic links and partnerships. When this coming academic year is over, the future of the sector may have been determined, perhaps for a generation. What I would like to see is that DCU moves decisively, and also with a sense of confidence, through this period. So for this last year of my term of office, the challenges will be huge; but DCU has in its short history been able to thrive on challenge. I expect it to stay that way, and I intend to do my bit very actively during this final lap.

PS. If you are interested in my job, you can find the details here.

The flexible degree programme

April 9, 2009

I used to have a German friend who was by inclination, temperament and vocation a university student. When I last had contact with him in the mid-1980s he had been what we would call an undergraduate student, in the same course, for nearly nine years, and he was showing absolutely no sign of wanting to bring that phase of his life to an end. For all I know he is a student still. In this part of the world we have taken a very different approach: your degree programme is, probably, three or four years long, and most students will complete it in that timeframe; a small number may fail enough examinations to extend their progress by a year. But that’s it, really.

Our approach to this has been guided by economic prudence – it is expensive to keep a student on a course – and educational principle – students should focus on their studies and complete them in a timely manner. This has been based on the implied assumption that a student is, usually, a full-time learner. But a lot has been changing. As participation in higher education has grown dramatically, so the student body has become much less homogeneous and different persons have different needs. For example, a significant number of students nowadays help fund their time at university by engaging in what is often nearly full-time paid employment. This can result in a situation where the student struggles to keep up with their studies for lack of time.

It may be that we need to find some middle way between the not uncommon permanent student found in Germany and the strictly regulated programme duration in our own universities. As universities are increasingly operating modular systems it should become easier to design pathways that leave the student with more flexibility (for example as to how many modules to take in a given year) while still maintaining a degree of supervision and proper academic rigour. This, for example, is one of the aspects of DCU’s Academic Framework for Innovation.

Neither our student body nor their expectations and needs are the same today as they were when higher education was much more elitist. Not only do we now have many more students who need to work to have an adequate income to live off, we have more mature people whose professional expectations have been overturned by economic events and who may benefit from retraining, but who cannot simply slot into the old ‘full-time’ courses. We need to ensure that we support the drive to open up higher education much more, and we need to be flexible in pursuit of it.

The TCD-UCD partnership

March 11, 2009

Since I wrote on this topic last week, there has been a lot of media coverage and a lot of discussion, and indeed a lot of anxiety, over the nature and shape of the proposed collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. The speculation, or at least most of it, has now ended with the formal announcement by the President of UCD and the Provost of Trinity, attended also by the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Finance. I hasten to say that I was invited to attend this, but for genuine reasons of conflicting engagements was unable to do so. I have however read the statements issued on the occasion.

It is right to state at the outset that we must all be aware that the country faces extraordinary challenges, and that universities have a particular opportunity and obligation to provide leadership and initiative in this current environment. It is also right to say that partnerships and alliances between universities must be the right thing to pursue. And finally, universities and other higher education institutions now have an obligation, in order to maintain public support, to demonstrate that what they do can generate economic activity, create jobs and help get us out of the recession. And in that spirit I welcome and applaud the initiative which the two colleges have taken.

I would go on to say that other institutions, including my own, must continue with and step up our efforts to make a difference and to help solve the country’s problems. DCU will be launching its new strategic plan within the next two months, and will be announcing its own initiatives – as well as those it proposes to take with Irish and with major international partners.

In the meantime however, we must also ensure that the institutions in Ireland do not fragment, and do not come to the view that they must take competing and perhaps incompatible initiatives aimed at gaining advantage over each other, rather than in pursuit of the national interest. Welcome though today’s announcement is, it was preceded by an element of secrecy which was not helpful and which could have sowed the seeds of serious distrust in the sector. It is our job now to overcome that and to reinstate national collaboration and mutual support.

Too many doctors in the house?

March 11, 2009

Last year – in 2008 – Dublin City University (DCU) awarded two honorary doctorates, both at the same ceremony. On this occasion the awards were given to Mrs Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, and to Dr Martin McAleese; they were intended to mark the contribution of both to Ireland’s culture and education, and more particularly also to their vital role in promoting and supporting peace in Northern Ireland. They both spoke movingly at the ceremony about the ideals of scholarship, and of tolerance and peace. And I believe we were able to present this as a very special occasion, not least because theirs were the first honorary degrees DCU had awarded for a while, and because no others were awarded that year. During the same year, perhaps some 45 or so honorary doctorates were awarded in other universities in the state. Actually I am guessing, it may have been more.

In fact it has been DCU’s policy since I became President in 2000 to award honorary doctorates sparingly, and to avoid awarding them to individuals whose main claim was their celebrity status. Over these eight years we have awarded a total of eight honorary degrees (including President and Dr McAleese); during four of those years we awarded none at all. This is in large part due to my belief that these distinctions lose their meaning if too many are handed out, and in particular if it becomes hard to see on what basis the awards are made. In DCU we have tried to ensure hat the recipients have made important contributions to education or scholarship, or given strong support to education and its values, or have made important community contributions. The first (and in that year only) award made in my time as President was in 2002 when we awarded an honorary doctorate to Father Peter McVerry, for his work with homeless and disadvantaged people in Ballymun.

Ireland does not have an honours system. Whether such a system might be a good or a bad thing can be debated, but what seems to me to be wrong is to expect universities to perform that role. Those who do research for a PhD are expected to put in years of hard work in a very demanding setting to get their doctorates, and to produce original work that will make a difference to the advancement of knowledge. We should expect honorary doctorates to mark similar long term efforts and dedication.

We are extremely proud of all our honorary graduates, and I feel we can say that in each case we were marking something very special, and we did so in a way that made the awards stand out. I am not suggesting that any other university has done anything improper, but maybe the time has come to look again at what message  higher education institutions expect to transmit with these degrees. And maybe it would be better if, across the whole system, fewer were handed out.

Charles Haughey’s papers come to DCU

February 4, 2009

Tuesday was a significant day for Dublin City University: the papers of the late Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Charles J. Haughey were handed to DCU by his family. They are now being sorted and catalogued and, eventually, will be accessible to researchers, historians and scholars who want to study them. It is a priceless collection: letters, reports, memos, documents and other memorabilia, perhaps the most impressive and complete collection of such documents in recent Irish history,  providing insights not just into the life of this most visionary but also controversial politician, but also his times.

It was one of those interesting twists that the hand-over of the papers took place on the day that we learned of the break-down of the social partnership talks aimed at tackling the serious economic and financial problems currently faced by Ireland. In 1987, within days of becoming Taoiseach after the general election of that year, Haughey set about the task of preparing the ground for what became the Programme for National Recovery – an agreement between the government, the employers, the trade unions and other representative groups, under which pay restraint was agreed in return for reform in taxation and various social programmes. It was an extremely successful initiative, contributing critically to a steep growth in Ireland’s competitiveness and providing order in the country’s public finances. The boom of the Celtic Tiger was born in that initiative, very well documented in the papers we received today.

Political archives are enormously important for historians, political scientists, journalists and others. With the Haughey papers, and with materials previously provided by the families of the late Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby and diplomat Sean Lester, DCU is building a collection of unique value. And we hope that this is only the beginning of a process that will allow us to become the recognised home for such archives in Ireland.

In relation specifically to Charles Haughey, I think the time is right to change the focus from one on his personal life and finances to the role he played, first as a reforming and socially aware Minister in several departments, and later as the head of a government that took the painful but necessary steps to halt Ireland’s dramatic economic slide. When Haughey took over as Taoiseach in 1987, there was a huge public debt, and unemployment was at over 17 per cent. Within three years everything had changed, and the country was well on the way to becoming a model for economic reform and development. I am glad that DCU is able to make some contribution to recognising this.

Our mission is – well, what?

January 18, 2009

During the recent strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University, I did a presentation in which I set out a number of mission statements from a variety of universities. Some of the universities were old – ancient, indeed – some were new, some were teaching-intensive, some research intensive, some were in major cities, some served sparsely population regions. I produced the mission statements, and in a separate order, the names of the universities; I then asked those present to see whether they could correctly link the universities to their missions. And of course they couldn’t – these statements were entirely interchangeable. They all said they wanted their institution to be as good as you could imagine in teaching, research, community engagement and innovation; or some such stuff. Some were able to say this quite snappily, some needed several paragraphs and long words.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person suggested at my presentation, that nobody should bother with such stuff anyway; mission statements are put together without much imagination, and probably as an after-thought to strategic planning, rather than as a foundation for it. Or it could suggest that, despite all claims to the contrary, in the end all universities have a very similar mission, and the differentiating factor is not what they do, but how good they are at doing it. That would be bad news for DCU, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But if you ask DCU people what that difference consists of, the answer often is that we innovate and introduce things before others do – that we lead the way in pursuing change. That is of course good, but it doesn’t make us different; it means we do the same things, just earlier.

In the case of DCU, there are in fact some clear differences, and our strategic plan will develop that thinking a little more in an explicit way. But all this does raise the question whether the assertion that a university sector should contain some diversity is actually well founded. Is it really true that, let’s say in the UK, Cambridge University is different from the University of Lincoln in any way that cannot be explained by age, resources and influence? In other words, in the ideal world of each, would they be doing something radically different from each other?

Universities often repeat the mantra of diversity, but do we really know what that should require of us? And if we did discover a real basis for differentiation, would all of those seeking a different mission enjoy the respect of those who stick with a more traditional agenda? These are important questions which, I believe, university strategic planners do not properly examine, and to which I suspect they do not have an answer. It is a topic to which I shall return in due course, perhaps when we have published our plan.