Posted tagged ‘universities’

University research – what is the agenda?

July 5, 2008

University research has really only been a serious activity in Ireland since the late 1990s. It is not that nobody was interested before that, but the resources were not there to fund it, and without resources there will not be much high value research. But in the 1990s an understanding began to emerge that we cannot realistically create a knowledge society without world class research, and that you cannot have world class research without significant investment and the recruitment of international research leaders.

Since then we have had the major investment initiatives of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the two research councils (IRCHSS and IRCSET), the Health Research Board, and so on. Ireland has now had very significant research resources, and with it has come a significant advance in the quality of our research output and its ability to leverage high value industrial investment.

But despite all this, there are several issues, uncertainties and problems that remain. They include the following:

• It seems to be the case that those funding research still do not adequately understand the full cost of doing it; the days in which we could absorb the overheads and accept funding only for the marginal costs are long over – we are simply doing too much research now to be able to do that. But the overheads now increasingly available are still far too small.

• We need much more clarity on what the funders – often the taxpayer – expect to get from the investment in research. Related to that, we need a better understanding of how the intellectual property arising from research outputs should be handled.

• Nobody has yet properly grasped the significance of providing attractive careers for researchers; many of those working full-time in research have inadequate contractual conditions and little longer term job security.

• There needs to be a much better understanding of the value of research in the arts, humanities and social sciences and the contribution it makes to society – and therefore how it should be funded.

There seems to me to be little doubt that Ireland’s future prospects depend quite significantly on the quality of university research and its capacity to make Ireland attractive as a place of innovation and discovery. We have made much progress in advancing this agenda, but progress on these important issues is too slow, and we can easily fall behind other countries that understand them better. And we need to ensure that, during this time of economic uncertainty, we don’t dilute our commitment to the further development of Ireland’s research agenda.

The student experience

July 3, 2008

When I was a student – and I’m afraid that wasn’t yesterday – my ‘working day’ tended to begin at 10 am or so (I just couldn’t make it to any 9 am lectures) and ended very very late. I rarely made it back to my bed before midnight. Of course it wasn’t that back then in the last century Trinity lecturers gave us tutorials at 10 pm; rather, the campus was full of other activities from the very rich menu of clubs and societies.

Recently I walked through the same campus at about 9 pm, and it was like a morgue. There was almost nobody to be seen, and as far as I could tell nothing that required organisation was happening. There may of course have been special reasons for the absence of visible activities on that day, and it may have been highly atypical. But I can have the same experience, at least on some days, on any university campus after around 7 pm. 

It is not that today’s students are safely tucked up in bed at 9 pm. It is, rather, that there are so many alternative attractions these days outside the campus, many of them involving large quantities of drink. But the effect has been to remove a little bit of the student experience, that part of the experience that can be found in things like debates, games and sports. So you might conclude that ‘student life’ is dead. And yet on the other hand, when you look at the variety of active clubs and societies in my own university you may change your mind. I am regularly thrilled by the enthusiasm of students in supporting their favourite extra-curricular activities through student organisations – both in traditional clubs and societies and in the newer and occasional quirky ones such as DCU’s ‘Style Society’ or the ‘Murder She Wrote Society’.

But despite all that, I still think we need to do more. One of the things we can do is to try to incorporate student participation in such activities in the formal curriculum, or more importantly within the body of work that we assess for degree purposes. DCU has been doing this for some time now in the Uaneen module. Called after the late broadcaster and DCU graduate Uaneen Fitzsimons, this module can be chosen by undergraduate students and will count for the credits needed for the final qualification. Through the module students who choose it can gain recognition for participation in clubs, societies, and community work. It is as far as I know still unique in Ireland, but while it has strong support in the student community it is sill only chosen by a fairly small number.

We need to ensure that the student experience is not just gained in the lecture room, the laboratory or the pub, but that we encourage them to participate in other activities which can gain them valuable experience and skills. Then perhaps we can also allow our campuses to become lively again at 9 pm and later.

Tuition fees: facing up to reality

July 1, 2008

In this post of a couple of weeks ago I drew attention to the funding problems facing Irish universities; I pointed out that it was unlikely that we would resolve the problems unless those students who can afford to pay contribute to the cost of their university education, and that we would fall further and further behind internationally. Last year DCU entered the top 300 universities in the Times Higher world rankings for the first time. But while we may rise a few more places, our funding environment will absolutely prevent us from entering the top 50 or so. And even Trinity College Dublin, the highest ranked Irish university at 53, will not be able to advance much beyond that without the kind of income enjoyed by US and (increasingly) British universities. It is notable that not a single university in the world’s top 20 derives its income for teaching solely or even significantly from state grants.

When tuition fees were abolished in Ireland in the late 1990s (or rather, when the state took over responsibility for them in the ‘free fees’ programme), it was done for entirely laudable reasons, to do with the desire to make access to higher education affordable to the disadvantaged and to ensure that education is not seen as a commodity. But even then many commentators correctly predicted what would happen: that the taxpayer would be unable to resource a growing student population adequately and that universities, relying excessively on just one funding source, would become unable to develop and innovate at the appropriate speed. In the decade since then, the income per student in real terms has dropped dramatically, and by 2008 virtually all universities are in very serious financial crisis – while still managing, just about, to maintain quality.

In fact, even the social objectives of ‘free fees’ have not been achieved. While participation has grown, the increase in numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds owes very little to ‘free fees’, or indeed more generally to state initiatives, but almost everything to the very successful and expensive access programmes that the universities themselves have put in place and secured with private funding. In the meantime, public money that could be targeted at the disadvantaged is being spent on the education of the more affluent. The big winners have been private secondary schools, as parents who would previously have spent their money on the university education of their children have redirected it to secondary schools – the main losers being good state-funded schools.

All in all, it is arguable that the abolition of tuition fees has been one of the most notable examples of redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich. While those who have supported it have done so from noble motives, the policy itself has, if analysed closely, been morally indefensible.  In the meantime, most politicians acknowledge privately that the abolition of tuition fees was wrong, but are afraid of the wrath of middle class voters should they do anything about it.

However difficult this subject may be, it is time for a re-think. As we face harder times economically, it is time to be courageous and imaginative and to correct this mistake, honourably made but with appalling consequences. Then maybe we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Men in suits

June 26, 2008

Do you ever attend gatherings at which you wonder whether you are appropriately dressed? Well, you’re not alone in this.

To the best of my recollection, I have attended six meetings this week at which I was the only person not wearing a suit. That may tell you – though it needn’t be so – that at these meetings no women were present. But it also tells you that, in Ireland at certain meetings, we are all still very traditional in our tastes. As it happens, I very rarely wear a suit; it’s not that I disapprove of them, but I don’t like the air of formality they tend to convey. I do usually wear a tie – though not always – but I don’t tend to put on a suit more than about once or twice a month.

But actually, why are men in senior academic positions still so attached to such formal wear? In the business community it is now increasingly common to see men wearing informal clothes (albeit often very expensive ones). What is it that we feel we need to prove that makes us buck this trend? It is perhaps part of the outward formality that tends to mark out academic life: formal clothing (or if not formal, then usually remarkably old-fashioned) accompanying formal procedures and visible hierarchies.

One of DCU’s most successful student societies is the Style Society. I think I need to get in touch with them to get some advice on how universities can shed some of the excessively traditional image. Or maybe I need some advice just for myself, so that I can confidently start to discard the tie as well as the suit.

Equality and diversity in universities

June 25, 2008

Twenty years ago I was asked by the Conference of University Personnel Administrators (which covers the UK and Ireland) to address their annual gathering then taking place in Dublin on the topic of equality. I told them that, in my view, universities were full of people with liberal credentials and a commitment to fairness and equality; and yet the evidence was that they were amongst the very worst organisations when it came to equal opportunities. This was not only because of unenlightened management, but also because individual academics often behaved in a way that made real equality almost impossible to achieve. So while academics working on discrimination and equality issues often focused on industry as the place where most change was needed, my argument was that in the case of universities we’re not that different after all.

Twenty years on, and what has changed? Some of the statistics are now better, though nothing to be excessively proud of. More women and members of minorities are making it into senior positions. In DCU for example, half the members of my senior management team are women, including the Deputy President. However, there is still plenty of evidence of a glass ceiling, and of a rather macho culture that tends to pervade the organisation at many levels. An equality audit commissioned by DCU a few years ago revealed a number of issues we have needed to address, while also indicating that at some levels we had made some progress.

There is a good deal of evidence that equality and diversity issues are still a major problem for society – although the problem is much more complex than we would have thought in the 1980s. So for example, we are facing a pattern of serious under-achievement by young males at school and in early adulthood, which may create both gender imbalances and also potentially serious social problems. This phenomenon must on the other hand be set alongside the absence of a sufficient number of women and members of ethnic and other minorities in leadership positions. How easy it will be to maintain a stable and just society in such circumstances is something we have not given enough attention to.

In the meantime, universities often maintain a working environment which is unnecessarily aggressive and intolerant – as academics are used to defending their positions in strong terms. This often produces a particularly stressful environment which is not conducive to diversity. Whether university managements always set the right tone could also be debated.

Equality and diversity are important not just because they are morally right, but also because they are efficient and generate a creative environment. Universities must seek to be role models in this agenda. We are not close to that yet.

Teaching: at the heart of higher education?

June 19, 2008

It is almost exactly 30 years ago that I first entered a room to teach students. That was in Cambridge, and I was doing a PhD and earning a little extra income by doing some teaching in my field. I hope the students got something from it, but I sometimes wonder – I was very inexperienced at the time, and like most new teachers very nervous. Two years later I became a lecturer in TCD’s School of Business Studies, and by that time I had become more confident and was very enthusiastic; and there followed a 20-year career teaching some 4,000 students, many of whom I will meet occasionally, some now in very senior positions.

I always enjoyed teaching, and particularly liked participative classes in which I would learn a lot from some very bright students. I didn’t like examining so much, not least because you could not help being aware of the effect on young people’s lives and careers of the results. But when in 2000 I had to give up regular teaching on taking up the post of President of DCU, I did feel significant regret that this part of my life would be missing.

By that time (i.e. the year 2000) I had been a Professor for ten years. It is a rank I was able to get almost entirely on the strength of my research. If teaching played a role in it, I was and am unaware of it. And as many academics know, that’s how the academic promotion system in almost all universities works. That is not always a bad thing, because academic life is about scholarship and research output demonstrates scholarly achievement. However, the traditional key core mission of a university is to teach, and if we want people to perform this vital task well we need to show recognition of excellence in this field – and on the whole we don’t. DCU has adjusted its promotion procedures to encourage staff to provide evidence of teaching excellence, and we have an annual President’s Award for good teaching. But we also know that this is not yet enough.

One of the aims I have set myself as part of the strategic planning process that is about to begin in DCU is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and we must be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research. When we have advanced this discussion somewhat in DCU I shall return to the topic here, but in the meantime would welcome comments from academics, students and former students, and others, about how we should encourage and reward really excellent teaching.

Paying for higher education

June 18, 2008

All Irish universities derive their income from a number of sources. However, most of it still comes from the state, by various different routes. There is the recurrent grant, which universities receive in order to teach undergraduate students, and which is weighted in accordance with certain assumptions about the costs of providing the various programmes. This is supplemented by the student fee, which under the ‘free fees’ system operating since the late 1990s is also paid by the state for all Irish and EU students. Both the recurrent grant and the fees are paid by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Students from outside the EU have to pay a full fee, designed to cover the cost of their education. In addition, universities will receive money from research grants and contracts, much of which again will come from public money (through research councils, or the HEA in the case of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, or through Science Foundation Ireland).

Non-state income will consist of international student fees (see above), research contracts with the private sector, or various commercial activities.

Public expenditure on higher education has grown very significantly over the past decade or so, but the increase in money has arguably not kept pace with the significant growth in student numbers and the rate of inflation as experienced by universities (driven overwhelmingly by pay increases and increases in the cost of equipment and consumables used by higher education institutions). ‘Our’ inflation is considerably higher than the consumer prices index.

At the same time, Irish universities are competing with institutions in other countries that are considerably better funded. Universities in England have had the benefit of so-called ‘top-up’ fees paid by students, and shortly the institutions there will be able to determine the level of these fees without restriction. At that point English universities will be able to call on resources that are much higher than those available to third level institutions in Ireland, and it is possible that this will have a detrimental effect on the ability of our colleges to compete. US universities typically enjoy income which is a multiple of what we would have here.

Into this already very tricky environment comes the likelihood that, in the Estimates (decisions on public expenditure) for 2009, there will be even more severe cutbacks because of current economic conditions. Most universities here are already running deficits, and this will seriously exacerbate the situation.

So what needs to be done? First and most importantly, there needs to be an acknowledgment that universities are under-funded, and are too reliant on just one source of income. Secondly, we need to start thinking about how this significant risk can be spread. It is not generally popular to say this, but it is hard to see how the resourcing issues can be addressed without looking again at the question of student fees. While there has been at least some increase in participation rates in higher education by those from a disadvantaged background, the majority of students still come from the middle class. The problem with the free fees system is that it allows significant public money to be spent on assisting the better off, while investment in supporting the education of the disadvantaged is totally inadequate.

If we are to compete internationally, and if we are serious about widening access to higher education, we need to look again at ‘free fees’, and at least consider the introduction of some form of student fees, accompanied by a much more effective system of grants and supports for those who are not well off. If this nettle is not grasped (and politicians of all parties are reluctant to take it on), it is likely that Irish universities will run into serious debt, will fall behind international competitors, and will fail in their mission support the disadvantaged.

Blog about a blog

June 13, 2008

Today (June 13) this blog got a mention in the Irish Times, so I’ve had a lot of traffic, and some interesting comments. I have indeed said that I should also consider a blog on Facebook or Myspace, or maybe Bebo. I am as it happens a member of all of these already, so it would not be a big step – perhaps in the autumn.

It is however important that the university community more generally gets better at communicating with stakeholders. Whenever we are under pressure, there is lots of evidence that the general public does not regard universities as institutions that should attract their strong support, and there are still many who believe that we under-perform and don’t use our resources well. Those who work in today’s universities know that, as a generalisation, such complaints are very far from the truth – but we are not good at persuading the public that this is so.

So I hope that many academics and university staff become bloggers in the public arena, stimulating debate and helping to explain what we do, and what intellectual, financial and ethical value we provide for society. And maybe we also need to accept that, sometimes, universities (like all other organisations) get it wrong, and sometimes we need to show a willingness to listen to the outside world and change as a result.

The modern university – corporate or academic?

June 11, 2008

A recurring theme of public debate about what one might call the ‘modernisation’ of higher education has been whether a new breed of university leaders has been trying to turn universities into corporate, business-like institutions, abandoning the academic tradition of collegiality and independent intellectual rigour. Alongside this the question has sometimes been asked whether there is a trend to ‘privatise’ higher education.

It could be said that there are two rather polarised (and maybe caricatured) strands of opinion on the role of universities. One suggests that a managerial and commercial ethos has entered the bloodstream and has in particular infected university heads, who all want to be like corporate CEOs and get equivalent salaries, and that these are destroying the traditional scholarly and collegiate ethos. The other (and opposite) strand is that the traditional university model has become unworkable because it is inefficient and unable to strike a relationship with external stakeholders, and in particular that university structures and decision-making are no longer fit for purpose and require major reform.

Neither of these seems to me to be useful, and I don’t think they represent a well thought out analysis – they are both really just knee jerk. What I would argue is that universities play a role within a society to which they must relate, and that a fast changing environment is unlikely to allow universities just to stay the same; but that the role they play cannot just be determined by the loudest shouts from inside and outside the system.

I believe that the traditional collegiate model, at least in the way it was practised in the past, may not be so easily sustainable today, because it is highly change-resistant. Organisationally universities had become about the most conservative and reactionary bodies in society, and not particularly because they defended intellectual freedom, but rather because they used it to defend unacceptable organisational cultures that included social elitism, aggressive behaviour bordering on bullying, neglect of community links, failure to promote the social, cultural and industrial benefits of intellectual property, and so forth.

On the other hand, the reformers have often been mesmerised by structural issues, focusing on internal reorganisation and new managerial methods, thereby undermining the capacity of people to produce innovation and intellectual (as distinct from structural) reform.

Maybe the appropriate model for a modern university has not yet been properly identified, but its key attributes should include streamlined decision-making with the capacity to have widespread buy-in; much more effective external networking with a variety of stakeholders; a much greater opening up of internal boundaries to promote interdisciplinarity; more professional commercialisation (involving those who are happy to participate); much greater embracing of diversity; visible involvement in local communities; and a move away from the traditional hierarchical approach to interpersonal relationships.

These goals are being obscured, however, by the emphasis on some Aunt Sally topics such as ‘privatisation’, which actually has fairly little objective meaning and is just being used to stir passions. Universities are public bodies in terms of their missions and their role, but they also need to be seen as autonomous in their decision-making; they cannot function effectively as bureaucratic public sector agencies.

On the other hand, debate is a good thing, and it is to be hoped that academic communities will engage in it vigourously over the period ahead.