Posted tagged ‘Robert Gordon University’

Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework

June 26, 2017

Let me first of all declare an interest. This post is going to be about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK. My university, Robert Gordon University, entered, and was awarded a Gold rating. So you may conclude that this colours my judgement.

But let me first go back some ten years to a meeting I attended on university rankings. One speaker, representing a particular league table, argued that in devising a set of criteria and weightings for such a table you had to start from one assumption: that nobody would accept its credibility if the top ten didn’t contain everyone’s favourite famous and venerable institutions. You could make it interesting and exciting by leaving room for, say, two outliers or unexpected entrants, but the remaining eight had to be the ones you and I would guess were bound to be there. So you kind of had to work backwards from that: what were the criteria that would guarantee a top-three slot for, say, the University of Cambridge?

This way of working – or to be less tendentious, this pattern of rankings – has another effect. It creates a system in which one particular kind of institution becomes the benchmark for everyone. When people talk about ‘top universities’, or ‘elite institutions’, invariably they mean ones that manage to look and feel most like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You are as ‘good’ as the degree of your resemblance to this small group. Your aspirations for excellence must be based on your strategy to achieve Ivy League or Oxbridge similarity. You may do all sorts of valuable or worthy things, and no matter how innovative they are or how effectively they meet social, cultural or economic desiderata, if they are not based on the characteristics made desirable by that elite group the praise you will receive will never quite lack an undertone of condescension, and almost certainly won’t help you at all in any league table. Of course Oxbridge and the London University institutions and the Ivy League are excellent and to be admired. But is that the only acceptable gold standard?

All of this is proved emphatically in some of the loudest responses to the outcomes of TEF. Even TEF didn’t relegate Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College from the top grade; but it did send some other venerable institutions packing. No other London university made it to Gold, and several Russell Group members were awarded Silver and indeed Bronze. The Russell Group, according to its own website, represents ’24 leading UK universities’. You get the idea: you start with the assumption that these universities will ‘lead’ whatever you have come up with. And here is how the Russell Group responded to the results:

‘We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time… TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact.’

I won’t comment here on the various questions and arguments that have been advanced on TEF, and I have no doubt at all that there is significant room for debate about the exercise, its merits and intentions. But, in full recognition of my special interest here, I will say this. It is high time that higher education becomes less monolithic. It is time to recognise that excellence is not incompatible with diversity, and that there are many different contributions universities can make – no, that truly leading universities can make – to help achieve society’s need for pedagogical and scholarly excellence; that there are different ways of realising intellectual creativity translated into social progress and that these different ways deserve proper funding; and that we must not accept a higher education hierarchy of elitism today any more than we would accept a socio-economic one. If TEF takes us even a little bit in this direction, then TEF has done something really good.

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Universities and cultural regeneration

June 24, 2014

My university, Robert Gordon University, will today launch a major report on how to promote cultural regeneration in the North-East of Scotland. This report was produced by a working group I established last year, chaired by Professor Paul Harris of RGU’s Gray’s School of Art. What follows below is the Foreword I wrote for the report.

‘From the very earliest days of higher education history, universities have been centres of cultural engagement and development. Towns and cities grew around higher learning establishments, and the scholarship nurtured in the universities often provided the roots for local arts and culture. That is still largely true today: almost every city that has a major cultural offering also has world-class universities.

I take the view, as Principal of Robert Gordon University, that this institution has a special relationship with its city and its region, and that it must give expression to this through its contribution to local culture and through its leadership in debates about how that culture and creativity can be further enriched. It was with this in mind that I established the working group that has produced this very valuable report.

It is my hope that the assessment of our cultural future set out in this report, and the recommendations made therein, will provide a valuable contribution to the future of the North-East of Scotland more generally.

I am most grateful to Professor Paul Harris and to the team which produced this report. Moreover, on behalf of RGU I can give an undertaking that we will continue to work with the community of the North-East and with all other key stakeholders to ensure that together we can indeed create a new North.’

Universities have a responsibility to keep arts and culture alive. What RGU hopes and intends to do in the North-East of Scotland should be done by every university in every place. This allows us to be true to our intellectual mission, but also to give extra substance to the need for regional development and a good quality of life.

The RGU report sets out ten key findings and recommendations – more of which tomorrow.

The CBI, Scotland’s independence referendum and the universities

April 24, 2014

The following article was first published today by the Press and Journal, Aberdeen.

Universities play a key role in the community. They are engines of invention and innovation, and they are also spaces for debate in which all voices are recognized and encouraged. It is not always an easy role to play, and it gets most complex when issues being debated are controversial or in any way difficult. In a few months Scotland will be invited to take one of the most important decisions in several generations: whether it wishes to be an independent country. As one would expect, there are strong opinions on this question, and there is a robust campaign taking place leading up to the referendum itself.

Last weekend the campaign gained a new active participant: the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) registered with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of the No campaign. In doing so it created issues for at least some of its members: those who might favour a Yes vote, and those whose duty it is to remain neutral; this latter group includes the universities.

I have no doubt that this CBI decision was a wrong decision. It had previously expressed concerns about the impact of independence (as was perfectly appropriate), but declaring itself as partisan on the issue was something different, creating real problems for organisations that, also perfectly appropriately, hold a different view. We were not consulted before the decision was taken, but if I had been, I would have offered a robust opinion in the matter.

Some universities reacted to the CBI move by resigning immediately from membership. RGU took a different approach. While I immediately said that we disapproved of the CBI decision, I wanted us to reflect on how we could best deal with the problem that had arisen and that was not of our making. We are an industry-focused university, with many links and partnerships in the business community. Equally, we need to be sure that we are both remaining neutral in this important national debate, but that we also provide a safe space for both sides in the debate.

These are the principles that we will apply as we move to decide how we should respond to the CBI move. That is the duty we owe to our students, our friends and our partners in the wider community.

Subsequent to the publication of this article by the Press and Journal, and after extensive consultation, I decided that RGU will suspend its membership of the CBI, and will review the position after the Referendum.

Winter days

December 7, 2012

Winter has arrived in Aberdeen, and over the last few days we have had freezing cold temperatures and the first serious fall of snow. The scene below is the RGU campus in Garthdee, with Garthdee House in the background (where my office will be from spring 2013).

Garthdee, RGU, Aberdeen

Garthdee, RGU, Aberdeen

If you want to see a close up (and less wintry) photograph of Garthdee House, you can see one here.

RGU announces fees for students from the rest of the UK

September 23, 2011

As readers of this blog will know, there are no university tuition fees in Scotland for Scottish and EU students. However, in the light of the new fees régime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and further in order to ensure that university places in Scotland are not placed under impossible pressure of demand from the rest of the UK, the Scottish government announced that universities can charge rest-of-UK students up to £9,000 p.a. from the academic year 2012-13.

Most Scottish universities have now announced their rest-of-UK fees, with a number of institutions opting for the £9,000 limit (though in the cases of Aberdeen University and Heriot Watt, these fees apply to three years only, with the final year free to those whose studies cover four years).

Today my own institution, Robert Gordon University, has made its rest-of-UK fees announcement, and we have decided to set fees in accordance with the actual cost of delivering the degrees. This means that we have set the fees in three bands, with fees ranging from £5,000 to £6,750, with one programme (Master of Pharmacy) having a fee of £8,500. Under this framework Scottish students do not subsidise students from the rest of the UK, and these in turn do not subsidise Scottish students; we regard this as a fair and transparent framework.

RGU will also announce a framework for scholarships, bursaries and student support for all students in due course.

Education and obesity

August 23, 2011

One of the biggest social and health problems facing the developed world is obesity. Obesity has implications for the health services, for insurance, for social policy and welfare, for transport, for public safety, for the fashion industry, for economic performance. In the United States it is estimated that obesity costs the economy some $75 billion annually, and affects such things as the size of clothes, the design of cars, even the average width of coffins and graves; 25 per cent of American adults are thought to be obese. But apart from the material costs there are also the psychological issues, including questions of self-esteem and self-confidence.

While obesity has an impact on almost every corner of society, it has particular significance in education. In Aberdeenshire it has been estimated that 8 per cent of primary school pupils are obese, and as these and other young people progress through education the problem gets worse. Across a number of countries serious questions can be asked about catering and eating in the education system. In Ireland there is generally no school catering, and as a result students leave school at lunchtime and, typically, eat crisps and chocolate, or junk food. In countries where there is a school catering service the quality of the food is often very questionable.

Nor does it get better, necessarily, at university, where catering is often built on what one might call the fast food culture.

However, as the problem gets worse, there are now university research centres on obesity. Some of the leading ones include centres at Yale University, Sydney University, Bristol University, and my own Robert Gordon University. One of the notable aspects of the work of these centres is that, apart from research, they also do outreach and public education in relation to obesity issues.

Obesity is one of the key health and social problems of our age. Universities need to harness their expertise to support drives for management of this problem and the search for solutions. At the same time, educational institutions at all levels need to ensure that their students enjoy appropriate and healthy diets. The future is at stake.

Graduate employment

July 17, 2011

Every year the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in the UK releases data on graduate employment and unemployment. More specifically, it shows how many graduates are employed or engaged in further study six months after completing their studies. Leaving aside the position of graduates of smaller specialist institutions, the 20 universities with the best performance in the table published on Friday are as follows, in this order (figure in brackets is the percentage of graduates in work or study after six months):

The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen (95.7%)
Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln (95.5%)
The University of Surrey (94.8%)
The University of Edinburgh (94.5%)
Trinity University College (94.4%)
The University of Aberdeen (94.4%)
Canterbury Christ Church University (94.3%)
The University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (94.3%)
University of Glamorgan (94.2%)
Cardiff University (94.1%)
Harper Adams University College (93.8%)
The University of Keele (93.8%)
The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (93.8%)
The University of Huddersfield (93.7%)
The Nottingham Trent University (93.7%)
The University of Cambridge (93.6%)
Edge Hill University (93.6%)
Leeds Trinity University College (93.6%)
The University of Bristol (93.4%)
Newman University College (93.3%)

At the bottom of the table are the following:

London South Bank University (82.4%)
The University of Wales, Lampeter (81.1%)
The University of Bolton (79.9%)
UHI Millenium Institute (78.3%)
The University of East London (78.0%)

It is an interesting table. Two newspapers (the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail) have suggested that it shows that graduates of post-1992 universities fare less well in securing employment than old universities; this is not borne out by the table, which in fact suggests that at least at the top end old and new universities are not easily distinguishable. Actually, Oxford does not make it into the top 20, and Cambridge is at number 16. More generally the Russell Group universities do not perform particularly well. Scottish universities are, on average, better than English universities. And in that context, I am of course delighted that my own university, Robert Gordon University, leads the field.

Also interesting is the information about subject areas of study. The best post-study employment rates are in medicine and related subjects, followed by education, law, agriculture and biology. Mass communications and computer science fare worst.

Overall, even with the uneven performance between institutions and subjects noted here, a university degree still looks a good bet: 90 per cent of graduates across the UK as a whole are in employment or further study after six months. We do not have entirely up to date statistics for Ireland, but in 2006 the equivalent figure appears to have been 92%; it is likely that in current economic conditions this will have been eroded.