Posted tagged ‘higher education diversity’

Universities and social aspirations

December 10, 2013

Why do young people go to one university rather than another? And when they go there, how does it change them? If two people with the same attainment and the same interests proceed to higher education, and one of them goes to, say, Oxford, and the other to London Metropolitan University, will they exit from the system still the same? And if not, what determines the difference?

These questions are important because the outcomes of higher education are not just educational, they are clearly also social. People network at university, and the groups they associate with will often determine the further course of their lives and careers. Therefore it matters not just whether they meet people with the same intellectual and professional interests and intentions, but also what kind of socio-economic associations they form or are confirmed in.

Recently a student newspaper in Duke University, the prominent private research-intensive university based in Durham, North Carolina, ran a piece describing the impact that the university has had on one of its students. It quotes the student as saying that ‘he can no longer relate to any of his friends from high school’, all of whom, we learn, have unlike him gone to local state institutions. He still tries to socialise with them when he returns home, but conversation has become difficult because their experience is different from his. ‘I think it’s just really hard for me’, he muses, ‘ to relate to people who, you know, couldn’t get into a [university] like mine’.

OK, so what is that difference, then? Is it the more intellectual discourse available at the resource-rich Duke University? Is it based on the quality of the faculty and the richness of the pedagogy? Apparently not. Rather, in Duke his conversations with his classy college friends tend to revolve around ‘discussions of greek rankings, sharing of sexual conquests and wordless exchanges of loud bodily functions.’

What we are therefore left with is what we probably already knew: that there is a higher education apartheid based around social standing, which merges with claimed intellectual superiority backed by more generous funding. And these are the continuing building blocks of professional and social elites, and ultimately social exclusion.

Almost everybody these days supports and welcomes higher education diversity, but often there is a subtext about social hierarchies. We will never be in a system in which all institutions are equal, nor should we want to be. But we should look again at how diversity is often just a facilitator for social ambition, in which some institutions are prized and others are avoided by those wanting to get to the top of the tree. It is time for the system to say goodbye to all that, and goodbye to the assumption that institutional age delivers a more excellent intellectual performance, and goodbye to the belief that it is OK to pursue social ambition through one’s choice of higher education institution. It is time to say a genuine hello to real diversity, of different approaches but equal ambition and equal opportunities for world class leadership.

Reconfiguring the Irish system of higher education

February 14, 2012

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has, as part of its programme for implementing the national higher education strategy in Ireland (the Hunt report), has issued a paper setting out how it hopes to develop the structure of the system from its present state. The paper, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, makes certain assumptions about the current state of the sector and how it should be reformed. At the heart of these assumptions is the belief that what will make Irish higher education successful will be a much greater diversity of institutional mission that has been nationally coordinated. This position is expressed as follows in the paper:

‘In order to create and sustain a diverse yet coherent system, it will be essential that all institutions have a clear perspective on their particular mission and role within the overall system. In particular, it will be essential that institutions ensure that their programmes continue to be reflective of, and appropriate to, their mission.’

This diversity, the HEA believes, will need to be reflected in ‘greater differentiation based on field specialisation, programme orientation and mode of delivery.’ This in turn will be accompanied by ‘regional clusters’ which will allow students to tap into various specialisms spread across the universities and colleges in their area, at least in areas where there are several institutions that make this possible; and the HEA also envisages ‘mission-based clusters’ that will not depend on geographical proximity. All of this will also, the HEA intends, lead to the ‘elimination of unnecessary duplication of provision’.

The other key plan set out in the paper is to bring to an end the state funding of smaller institutions, which will have to merge with larger universities or colleges in order to survive. Institutes of technology will also have to consider mergers, leading to what the paper says will be ‘a smaller number of multi-campus institutions.’

The HEA rightly recognises that this kind of re-ordering will, as it puts it, ‘not occur in an “organic” way’, and it therefore envisages ‘top-down’ action. It therefore acknowledges a risk to institutional autonomy, but argues that this can be overcome by a phased and ‘agreed’ process of implementation; though one must assume that a different framework from that envisaged is not available to be ‘agreed’. As part of this process, universities and colleges are now to put forward proposals to the HEA involving one or more of options that include merger, clustering, conversion to ‘technological university’, or the establishment of a ‘specialist institution’. In the meantime the HEA will commission a paper addressing ‘the number of institutions, the range of missions and the alliances and relationships which have the potential to strengthen the system.’

What all of this represents is a significant reconfiguration of the Irish system of higher education, from one characterised by autonomous but (increasingly) collaborating institutions, to one based on a national, centrally coordinated plan.

It is easy to see how such a nationally directed system could look neat in a bureaucratic sense, but the HEA paper makes little attempt to explain in what way the system will deliver something better once reconfigured, and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. It acknowledges that the world’s best universities are highly autonomous, and it accepts that the plan will affect autonomy; but it does not say in any specific way what compensating benefits will emerge. It does not address at all the impact of these changes on basic principles such as academic freedom.

It is true that institutions will be able to propose their own plans for focused mission, but since all this will need to add up across the system as a whole, their ability to design their own strategic options will be seriously limited. And while it is entirely right that a small national system should encourage collaboration, in some contexts excellence requires competition also.

Given its role as funder of the system, the state has a legitimate right to look for both excellence and value for money in higher education. So for example, it can appropriately question institutions on issues such as unnecessarily overlapping provision, while however bearing in mind that a university will need, in each case, to be able to offer certain intellectual building blocks within the institution. What we are being asked to contemplate here is that institutional autonomy is wasteful, and that a ‘national system’ that distributes educational and research activity amongst institutions characterised by their specialisms will be better. This, it has to be said, is a mighty big experiment, and one without any currently successful model elsewhere to draw on or to provide some comfort. It changes the nature of institutional strategy from content to process, and vests substantive planning in a central structure. In short, it is threatening to replace institutional initiative with central planning, a framework that was not spectacularly successful in countries where it has been tried.

It is hard to resist the view that managing higher education by grand design is not the best way forward. In fact, Irish higher education has impressed both itself and the world with its ability to absorb serious funding cuts while still, more or less, maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. It does this with resources that are now very substantially smaller than those available to less successful competing national systems. There is, in short, no evidence that Ireland’s higher education sector is wasteful. There is no evidence that the existing model is in any serious way deficient. There is therefore little evidence of a need for the kind of centralised system being proposed, and there are many serious risks that will attend its implementation.

I could be proved wrong. But this is a big leap in the dark.

Diversity of mission?

July 20, 2011

During a strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University a couple of years ago, 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. But really they all said the same thing.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person argued 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 my present institution, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But what do we mean when we say that? How different are any of us, really?

Until now the key differentiator between universities, when all is said and done, has been money. When you have more resources, you can do different things. I suspect that many of us believe that if we had Harvard University’s reserves we’d be doing what Harvard does. But then again, some of us also increasingly think that, in today’s society, we need much greater diversity in higher education, not born out of necessity but based on genuine strategic intent. This probably sounds obvious enough to many, but in reality it isn’t. Diversity of mission to date hasn’t necessarily been based on strategic choice but on the recognition of inevitability. Those universities that stress their local role and teaching credentials are, I suspect, often doing so because they don’t have the resources to claim anything else with credibility. There’s nothing altogether wrong with that, because strategy is often in part about recognising what is achievable and then making that work for you. But there is an underlying hint that focusing on a local population and a teaching agenda is for the less well endowed and more modest institutions, and that therefore this agenda is in some ways not as good.

However, higher education now needs to find excellence in different contexts. We need to get away from the idea that, taking the UK as an example, Russell Group universities represent a ‘better’ and more excellent model of higher education. We need to have universities that aim to be world leaders, which includes leadership in research, but based on different strategic models. Some of this may be found in subject specialisation – the prioritisation of a smaller number of key areas – or in forms of teaching and learning innovation, or in support for economic development in a region (including perhaps a mission to address disadvantage), or in particular kinds of partnerships. But universities should not really be satisfied with a strategic model that is based on inferiority: we won’t have the resources to develop a global reputation, so we’ll concentrate on something more modest.

I have just tried to have a more up-to-date look at university mission statements, and interestingly many of those I looked at last time no longer publish one. But if they did, I hope that we might see the signs of a genuine commitment to diversity that is based on something more positive than being resigned to what is realistic, something that suggests that universities want to be excellent in their own way and have the confidence to believe in what they are doing, so that they would still do it even if they became very rich. In our fantasies, we shouldn’t all want to be Harvard.

Diversity of mission in higher education

June 22, 2009

In 2007 the European Universities Association adopted the ‘Lisbon Declaration‘, a policy document presented to Europe’s Education Ministers in the same year. The introduction to the Declaration contains the following:

A diversified university system: Universities recognize
that moving from an elite to a mass system of higher
education implies the existence of universities with different
missions and strengths. This requires a system of academic
institutions with highly diversified profiles, based on equality
of esteem for different missions. Institutions will increasingly
offer different kinds of study programmes leading to a wide
spectrum of graduate qualifications that allow progression
routes from one institution to another and will develop
research, innovation and knowledge transfer activities in
line with their diverse missions.

A diversified university system: Universities recognize that moving from an elite to a mass system of higher education implies the existence of universities with different missions and strengths. This requires a system of academic institutions with highly diversified profiles, based on equality of esteem for different missions. Institutions will increasingly offer different kinds of study programmes leading to a wide spectrum of graduate qualifications that allow progression routes from one institution to another and will develop research, innovation and knowledge transfer activities in line with their diverse missions.

The easy part of this is the idea that there should be institutions in higher education with different missions; the harder part is to work out what levels of diversity are compatible with membership of the same overall system and to what extent ‘equality of esteem’ is really possible. These issues are also topical in Ireland right now, as the higher education sector struggles with the rationalisation agenda and as institutions currently without university status seek to acquire it.

Dublin City University has its own story to tell. Founded as the National Institute for Higher Education in the late 1970s, it became DCU in 1989. In order to quality for university status, it had to demonstrate achievements in areas such as research – in other words, it had to show that it had taken on typical university characteristics. But once a university, it was important for it (a smaller Dublin institution sharing the regional space with three other universities) to be able to maintain a distinctive profile that would make it different. It has done so, partly by maintaining a high level of innovation, and partly by having an organisational profile and a menu of programmes that is different and does not cover all of the disciplines typical of a traditional university. And so when questions are asked about whether universities need to have, say, philosophy and history as core subject areas, DCU might be thought by some to find this a tricky conversation.

On the other hand, in some countries the ranks of universities have grown rather faster as previously non-university institutions are admitted into the club. In the United Kingdom the former Polytechnics became universities by legislation in 1992. Many of these had a core mission to provide educational resources for local areas in collaboration with local authorities; but once they were universities missions often changed as the institutions often abandoned their local ties and chased traditional university goals. Some commentators have concluded from this that the conversion to university status set in train a process of mission drift and the abandonment of important social objectives.

It seems to me that we are far from clear as to what appropriately constitutes a university. Many would probably be happy with the requirement that a ‘university’ needs to be an institution that has crossed a quality threshold in relation to teaching (and perhaps in particular) research. But is there also an expectation that there should be a prescribed disciplinary mix or outlook? If so, then the university system cannot realistically be committed to diversity of mission.

As we address rationalisation and related matters in the higher education strategic review in Ireland, it would be a good idea to develop a better understanding of what the system should look like, and what level of diversity can be supported and achieved. Though I would rightly be said to be biased, I believe that DCU’s particular difference from the rest of the sector has been a positive driver of change in Irish higher education overall. So maybe it is time to stop expecting higher education institutions to be mirror images of each other and to push them to develop specific and partly unique missions that allow each of them to address as a priority different aspects and needs of this level of education and of research. The call might be to all of us to be less like each other and to be clearer as to our institutional mission, and to make it different, maybe even radically different.


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