Posted tagged ‘universities’

Unloved universities?

October 28, 2008

An interesting – if, for some of us, depressing – feature of recent discussions on the funding of higher education has been the fact that there appear to be many people out there who, frankly, don’t think much of the universities. The Minister for Education and Science may be one of these people; he has launched, or rather he says he will launch, his ‘forensic audit’ of the sector, which in itself is a rather loaded term, suggesting that he suspects we do not make good use of our resources. But if he holds that view, he is certainly not alone. Widely held views include that universities are bad at managing their funds, allow systemic under-performance of staff, over-pay the academics (and in particular senior academics and officers), allow staff to avoid student contact, carry out too much research at the expense of teaching, fail to monitor quality adequately – and so on. This is backed up in media comment from time to time, as for example here. Because of all this, cutting university funding may be seen as justifiable.

Of course I would not suggest that all is perfect in the universities, but for anyone who spends any amount of time in any of them it would be hard to conclude that the above picture properly describes how they operate. I am not going to enter a defence of our institutions here (I may come back to that, however). Rather I am left to wonder why there really is nobody who offers a contrary view, apart from representatives of the sector itself (who of course may be taken to have a vested interest). For example, industry representatives in some contexts regularly affirm the importance of the Irish universities to our future, but absolutely no representative of the business community has come out to support the sector over the past weeks.

The answer probably lies with us. As institutions, we have I think not been good enough at making our case, and at explaining what we do and have done. We are not adequately and appropriately engaging in public debate, and too often we are wrong-footed by unfortunate stories of under-performance or questionable practice, stories which are not in themselves typical of what we do for society. University heads themselves, myself included, may need to think a little more also about how we appear in the public eye, and how good we are at representing the interests of our institutions, both in what we say and in what we do.

We have to conclude that, however well (as I would argue) we have been developing the sector in the interests of the nation, we have not been as effective as we need to be in articulating that and supporting our words with appropriate evidence. We need to think again, because if we do not have public support we cannot succeed as universities, and if we don’t succeed Ireland will have a much smaller chance of getting out of its current economic difficulties and returning to growth and prosperity.


Under-performance in universities

September 11, 2008

In the course of this Thursday I attended several meetings involving prominent people from government and industry. A recurring theme of the discussions was under-performance in the university sector, and it became clear that some of those present had strong views about this. It was felt that lecturers had only a few contact hours with students per week, and not much else to do, and that they often did not pay significant attention to student needs. They also assumed or believed that most academic staff disappear for months during the summer to enjoy extended holidays.

Not many academics would recognise this description, and most would be offended by it. But on the other hand we need to be aware of the fact that what I heard is a widely-shared perception in the outside world, and this needs to worry us, not least because it militates against significant support for universities when it comes to debates about funding and resourcing.

Academic life is not what it once was. It may indeed be true that, a few decades ago, someone taking up an academic career could expect very significant personal autonomy in their work, and a workload that would not be excessively taxing. Those who did no research of any significant volume – and that would have been a large majority – might indeed have expected to take much of the summer off. In short, it was not an uncomfortable life for many.

Those days are long gone. Academic life is now high pressure. Universities expect faculty to have a challenging workload in their teaching, and to be available to students at regular times for consultation and advice; but they also expect them to further their research and to have regular publications as a result, in high quality journals or published by renowned publishers. It would be rare now for an academic to take a summer holiday of more than three weeks.

But if we are honest, we would also have to admit that in higher education – as in most professions – there is a small number of people who do not perform to those standards, and we must expect that as part of the movement to increase university accountability for the expenditure of public money more questions will be asked about this. It will also be expected that we have ways of managing those (we hope rare) cases of visible under-performance.

If we are to attract support, both from politicians and other stakeholders, we need to take this agenda seriously. But we also need to be strong in defence of the dedication and commitment of the overwhelming majority of academic staff, who now work in what is often a stressful environment and who have managed to maintain and enhance the quality of our system.

Tuition fees … again

September 10, 2008

Today’s Irish Times brings us the news that the Minister for Education and Science is ‘personally backing’ the reintroduction of fees, and that the timescale for this may be shorter than some commentators had assumed. The Irish Times report says that he will bring the matter to a cabinet meeting within six months.

My first response would be to say that I am impressed that the Minister is continuing to address the issue. His original announcement brought some strong opposition, and his perseverance is a good sign. Whatever the solution may be to the issues facing the sector, they will be found only if there is a degree of political courage here, and the Minister is showing a good deal of that. This is a good sign.

I am also pleased that the Minister is looking at different models, and that he is considering both the impact on the disadvantaged, and at the Australian loan model. All that is good.

My only quibble: the Minister is continuing to talk about millionaires, thereby perhaps suggesting that he is envisaging a framework with a very high income threshold. This would be very hard to administer and would yield very little in revenues.

But for now, this is a good news story, if it is followed through well.

University architecture

August 26, 2008

Just after I took up my post as President of DCU, I invited an old friend to visit me there. I collected him from the airport one evening and drove him back to the university. We approached the campus along Collins Avenue (for those who know Dublin and DCU); it was 9 pm in the autumn, and it was dark. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘this looks like an oil refinery’. And maybe it did, a little. At the time we were building several new buildings along the road, and the scaffolding and cranes were lit up, and it did indeed look very industrial.

Some eight years later it is no longer like that. The buildings (or at least those under construction at the time) have long been completed, and the campus is, even if I say it myself, rather attractive – for a modern university. It has been carefully planned, and the clusters of buildings in DCU are laid out in such a way as to provide good interaction between the occupants, and also so as to leave some open spaces to avoid the campus seeming claustrophobic and so as to give some room to the human spirit. The campus is clean (mostly), and there are flower beds and other decorative features. I am very proud of DCU.

But as I visit universities both in Ireland and overseas, I am often struck by the rather poor quality of the visible infrastructure. Often I will find an old university with magnificent old buildings that have clearly been neglected, with new buildings pushed in next to them with little regard for the resulting aesthetics. New buildings are often badly maintained and show signs of ageing even before the snagging list has been attended to. And all too often I find a campus that seems to show no sense of the human dimension of what we do.

Why are we so bad at this? Some of the old universities worldwide often have inherited beautiful and grand buildings, occupying a campus that in modern times has clearly not been designed to be sympathetic to this heritage. Newer universities are often struggling with not-fit-for-purpose buildings constructed during the dark ages of design (from the middle of the 20th century until recently). And time and again I find myself looking round a campus that has clearly not benefited from a master plan of any value.

Of course there are also wonderful campuses, that have been well designed and planned and whose buildings and amenities clearly support the professional work being carried out there. And where this has succeeded it is not always just because there has been lots of money to spend – I have seen some universities which have clearly been able to make the most of modest resources.

Our physical environment is a crucial aspect in our ability to find fulfilment in our work. We need to be both comforted and stimulated by it – and certainly not depressed or overwhelmed. We need to get good not just at designing individual buildings, but also at ensuring that the campus as a whole reflected and supports our values. This should be one of the most important tasks for any university management team.

So what do we think of league tables?

August 23, 2008

I suppose if we are honest, we like them when we do well and we pour scorn on them when we don’t.

University league tables have been a feature of some countries for a while. In the United States, the league table published by US News and World Report has been influential for some time, while in the UK a number of league tables are published annually. There are now also several world rankings of universities, with the best known being the league table produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the world rankings issued by the journal Times Higher Education.

I was a Professor at the University of Hull when the first British league tables were published, and at the time everyone poured scorn on the exercise. But what quickly became clear was that our students, stakeholders and partners took them very seriously indeed, and by now the significance of league tables is hardly ever questioned. It may be the case that we are critical of how some of the information that informs the tables is weighted or processed, but we accept that league tables are here to stay. And on the whole, those who want to come to our universities or do business with them are entitled to know how we compare with others.

Ireland has not performed well in the international rankings, although some of the universities (including DCU) have seen their position improve significantly of late. But what is clear in particular is that the areas in which we are relatively weak will not get noticeably better until we are much more generously resourced and funded. If our standing in the tables in turn has an impact on knowledge-intensive investment in Ireland, as it almost certainly does, we need to ensure that we continue to move up the tables. The government’s recent announcements of funding cuts do not, for the moment, make that development likely.

University funding – again…

July 29, 2008

The resourcing and funding problems faced by the Irish university sector are continuing to get media attention – with a front page article by Sean Flynn in yesterday’s Irish Times, and various items in newspapers and on radio programmes. It is sometimes hard to work out whether the issues we are experiencing are being effectively communicated to a wider public, but at least the financial position of universities is now getting significant media attention.

Currently, we are being told by the government that we should expect a cut of 3 per cent to the grant we receive from the State for 2009. It needs to be said that a cut of 3 per cent is not a cut of 3 per cent, as the rate of inflation experienced by universities needs to be factored in. Secondly, this cut will hit the sector after several years of successive reductions in funding in real terms, which have already thrown several institutions into serious financial crisis (though not, as yet, DCU).

What we are therefore facing is a pattern of government decision-making that seems to suggest that teaching (as distinct from research, which has been more generously funded) in universities is not a priority. There may be a view in some circles that there is still a certain amount of poor management of resources and some waste in the sector, but a number of external investigations in recent years don’t bear that out; and in any case, even if it were true, universities don’t have the basic management tools under the law to address under-performance, if it were identified. In fact, it is almost certainly the case that under-performance is less of an issue in universities than almost anywhere else in the public sector.

In the end, what this tells us again and again is that we will not be able to address the financial problems in the sector until the issue of how we structure the funding is properly tackled – including, inevitably, the reintroduction of tuition fees and a proper framework of grants and scholarships for those who cannot afford the fees.

Has Karl Marx left the university?

July 22, 2008

The last two decades have not been good for the status of Karl Marx in the university system. As communism fell in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, institutes of higher education named after its founder were quickly re-named, and university programmes focusing on Marx’s writings and theories were either dropped or had their frames of reference changed radically. Some academics who used Marxian (or more likely, Marxist) analysis in their teaching or research either recanted or made subtle changes to show awareness that the world in general had abandoned Marx and moved on. And then Francis Fukuyama, in his book The End of History and the Last Man, finally suggested that the ideological warfare in which Marxism had been one of the key perspectives was irreversibly over.

Karl Marx, who was born 190 years ago this year, had actually intended to be an academic, and was prevented from following this career path only because he had already acquired the reputation of being a radical. But it is in universities in particular that his influence was most keenly felt in Western European countries after the Second World War. Quite apart from the scholars who devoted themselves to studying Marx and the theories which he initiated, many others used Marxism as a tool of analysis in a whole host of other areas and disciplines, including sociology, law, literature, politics, arts – even science and engineering. This cluster of academic Marxism within the academy was able to observe various campaigns, parties and movements in the outside world that were heavily influenced by Karl Marx – in the trade union movement, in politics, in voluntary organisations and elsewhere. If you lived your intellectual life inside this cluster, you could easily believe – say, in the mid-1970s – that the final victory of Marxism was only a short distance away.

But even then, if you were at least a little detached from the movement, you could see signs that it would not be quite that easy. For a start, Marxism (and in particular the Marxism that was visible in universities) was extraordinarily faction-ridden. Every Marxist movement had its disciples, its martyrs, its heretics, its detractors, its traitors and its sworn enemies who were all also Marxists, or said they were. Marxism had its parties, its societies, its ‘tendencies’ and so forth, often serving up a bewildering array of impenetrable theory and with a strong body of demonology – of people and groups who had betrayed the faith. 

And yet, Marxism was a powerful intellectual force. When I was a young lecturer in industrial relations in the 1980s, some of the academic writers I most admired were Marxist. Richard Hyman, for example (then in Warwick, now at LSE in London), wrote accessible but extremely well argued books and articles that influenced generations of academics, most of whom would not have adopted Marxism as a frame of reference. Where Marxism itself often appeared intellectually forbidding, Marxist academics were able to stimulate debate and sharpen discourse in a way that benefited higher education very considerably. So for example, Marxist analysis of literature by writers such as Terry Eagleton produced a rich intellectual rejuvenation in that field; and Helena Sheehan produced a fascinating history of Marxism and the philosophy of science.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall the fire largely went out in the Marxist camp, and many Marxist academics actually quietly abandoned Marx and moved on. Every so often, someone pops up to suggest that there is now a brighter future for Marxist analysis – see e.g. Andrew Levin in his 2003 book A Future for Marxism? – but the question mark betrays the continuing lack of confidence in the project. Some others argue – like the feminist academic Nancy Fraser – that there is a future for Marxism in a post-Marxian context that will focus on gender and race rather than class.

I suspect that Marxism will never return, either to the universities or indeed to political life, and that the analysis of Marx and the theories he influenced will mainly have an historical dimension. But a significant part of me regrets that – not because I am in favour of Marxism, but because Marxism was a good framework for the assessment of alternative views of a number of branches of learning. Higher education without ideology loses a lot of its analytical punch, and scholarship loses out in that setting. Politically, I would never wish to turn the clock back; but a part of me feels nostalgic for the old days of fiery debates. Maybe we need to find some new frames of reference that can restore some of the edginess that gives academic discourse its real energy.

In the newspapers – universities in crisis

July 20, 2008

Today’s Sunday Times carries an article on the situation facing the Irish universities, and on plans by the Irish Universities Association to put some options to the government that might allow them to look again at tuition fees, in a way that would not disadvantage students from less wealthy backgrounds. On the other hand, the Minister for Education is quoted in the article as saying that universities will need to accept a 3 per cent cut. It is to be hoped that this is part of a negotiating position, rather than a considered response.

Irish universities made a key contribution to the Celtic Tiger. To cut their resources now, just as their contribution becomes vital to finding a way out of the economic slowdown, would have catastrophic consequences. The Taoiseach has shown in the past, while he was Minister for Finance, that he understands the significance of higher education and research. I still feel optimistic that his government will take imaginative steps at this time to steer us out of crisis. Certainly the university Presidents will work constructively and positively with him and the government to achieve this.

Taking decisions…

July 12, 2008

Whenever I take part in a discussion about how (and how efficiently) decisions are taken in the world of higher education, I tend to refer people to what I think is the very best book on the subject: Microcosmographia Academica, published in 1908 by Cambridge Professor F.M. Cornford. It was written as a series of satirical observations about university decision-making – and while it was intended to describe the University of Cambridge around the beginning of the last century, it is remarkably accurate today. Cornford, in a sub-title- dedicated it to the ‘young academic politician’.

The main premise of the book is that academic institutions have elaborate systems for stopping all sensible decision-making – because there is only one argument for taking a decision (that it is the right thing to do), but dozens that can be employed against even the most wonderful proposal. He then lists (largely tongue in cheek) some of these arguments, and they are all easily recognised today.

Here are some:

  • The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
  • The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
  • Another argument is that ‘the Time is not Ripe’. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.

However, for all that we can recognise many committee debates here, it is worth saying that universities have become much better at streamlining their procedures and acting rationally, and have become much more capable of sensible reform. And it is also fair to recognise that many academics fear that reform really means removing the capacity of faculty and staff to have a genuine input in decision-making processes; and so it is important that such inputs are encouraged and facilitated. But we also need to ensure that our stakeholders are able to recognise that we behave in an efficient manner and that decisions are taken in a timely way. Reading Cornford’s book may help us to achieve that aim.

Is anyone there?

July 8, 2008

This is the time of year when, invariably, I get asked several times a day by well-meaning people whether my work is over for the summer and whether the DCU campus is now completely empty. There is still a widespread assumption that when the students have completed their exams in June all university faculty and staff disappear for a couple of months and have a long holiday. And they also assume that there will not be anything much for me to do during this time.

It was probably never quite like that anyway, but in most universities it certainly isn’t now. Indeed, for some academics June and July can be particularly busy, as conferences get under way and as people focus on their research.  However I suspect that this is not the image that some people have of higher education, and it is possible that in some institutions the summer months may actually be fairly be quiet.

The working patterns of university life are now very different from what some may imagine. At one point in my career I recruited a solicitor to a job as a law lecturer, and after her appointment she confided that she had decided on the career change because she felt that the pressures of a law practice were too severe and this was affecting her family life. She later returned to the the firm of solicitors because she found that the life of an academic lawyer was actually more stressful than that of a legal practitioner, but with considerably less pay.

Certainly the DCU campus is not empty at this time. However, we need to become better at explaining this to the wider public, and probably also at finding ways of dealing with the stress that, unfortunately, has become part of university life.