Posted tagged ‘university status’

So what makes a university?

February 17, 2015

As Ireland continues to struggle with the not very well thought out idea of ‘technological universities’ – now under fire because the somewhat daft requirement for candidate institutions to merge with others first is producing unexpectedly high costs – and England works on for-profit university institutions, new universities are also being created in the United States. The latest upgrade is what was the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, now to be Stockton University.

What is interesting about the announcement of its new status is that it is being described as a ‘comprehensive’ university, which in turn is explained by the institution itself as follows:

‘Comprehensive universities emphasize teaching, as opposed to research universities, which place more emphasis on faculty members’ research being published in refereed journals and books for promotion and tenure.’

So what is it that makes a university a university? If Stockton College continues to do as Stockton University what it did before, what will be the significance of the change, and how is its appropriateness assessed? And to what extent do we (or should we) regard research as the calling card of a university?

It is not just in America that the answers to these questions may not be altogether clear. And of course there is no reason to think that only one model of university is legitimate. Nevertheless, if we are to protect the concept and brand of a ‘university’, we need to have a clear idea of what that is. And I’m not sure we do.


How specialised is your university?

November 27, 2012

What makes a university a university? A few years ago I had this discussion with a group of academics, and two of them suggested that, in order to be a legitimate university, an institution had to address a number of academic subject areas, which would have to include history and mathematics. At the time I was President of Dublin City University, and while we had a School of Mathematical Sciences, we didn’t cover history. Now I am Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and we have neither. Does this mean we aren’t a legitimate university?

But while you’re grappling with that, things can get much narrower still. The newest kid on the university block in the United Kingdom is what will be known as the University of Law (formerly the College of Law). As the name suggests, this is a one-subject university, covering only law. All its courses are for practising or aspiring lawyers, and while some of these courses are offered at a postgraduate level, there are no research degrees, and no particular evidence of a research culture amongst staff.

So then, is the University of Law a university? Yes, say the authorities – by granting it university status. And moreover, waiting off-stage is the firm Montagu Private Equity. If their takeover succeeds, the University of Law will be a for-profit undertaking.

It is clearly not my intention to suggest that having a rich subject mix covering all traditional disciplines is necessary to make anyone a university. I believe that the future of higher education will involve much more in the way of institutional specialisation. But the essence of modern academic life lies in trans-disciplinary knowledge and discovery, and it is hard to see how a single-issue college can cover that. It is unlikely that the college intends to be a player in new analysis and knowledge generation, either.

I am not doubting the value of the University of Law, or the quality of what it does. I used to work with them quite closely when I was Dean of the University of Hull Law School in the 1990s. But I am doubting whether it is a university, and I find it difficult to see what benefit is derived by anyone from this change of status. What this change does do, however, is to make it much more difficult to see what meaningful criteria, if any, should govern the granting of university status. Time will tell, perhaps.

Establishing new universities in Ireland

June 22, 2011

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes for the time allocated to the meeting to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

In the meantime of course, the report on a National Strategy for Higher Education – the Hunt report – set out a framework for converting clusters of institutes of technology (but not individual institutes) into ‘technological universities’ (chapter 8). The report suggested:

‘There may be a case for facilitating the evolution of some existing institutes following a process of consolidation, into a form of university that is different in mission from the existing Irish universities.’

The idea behind this therefore is that ‘technological’ universities would be something generically different from ‘normal’ universities, but would also be something different from existing institutes of technology. This would maintain a binary divide in Irish higher education, but apparently one that is qualitatively different, even if that difference is for now somewhat ill defined.

And so the Higher Education Authority has now published a set of possible criteria for this process, prepared by Simon Marginson, a higher education expert from the University of Melbourne, and on which the HEA is now inviting comments. In looking at these criteria, I am finding it difficult to see how these would clearly identify a university that is different from at least some of those already having that status. Picking up some of the criteria, they include scale (‘an institution large enough to be comparable with existing universities in Ireland’), international standing (‘developed international collaborations such as joint projects, student and staff exchange, and combined provision of programs’), industry links (‘curricula that are developed in close consultation with business, professional and occupational organizations’), research (‘a research strategy that foregrounds [sic] the applied research mission, links to enterprises and the contribution of the TU to innovation and knowledge transfer’), governance (‘a governing body that includes representatives of enterprises, occupations, professions and local communities’), and so on. While all these criteria would not necessarily describe all existing universities, they do cover things that all universities have or do at least some of the time. The difference appears to be mainly that the ‘technological universities’ will also offer programmes that are below honours degree level (as well as honours and postgraduate programmes).

I might stress here that I am not opposed to university status for Waterford. But I do believe that the criteria already contained in the Universities Act 1997 for university status are sufficient, and I don’t see a compelling reason for having different criteria for other institutions also to be called ‘university’. It will be interesting to see what views and opinions are expressed in response to this document by the HEA.

For-profit universities?

July 27, 2010

In an unusual step, the British government has awarded a private, for-profit, institution university level status with its own degree awarding powers. BPP College for Professional Studies, a private London-based college with courses mainly in business and law, will now be called BPP University College. The government may be trying this out as a test case, in anticipation of its apparent policy to have more private institutions involved in higher education.

Perhaps anticipating some criticism of this step, BPP’a Director of MBA programmes has defended the College’s approach to teaching, quality assurance and student support. She also declared herself to be happy with the description of BPP as a ‘sausage factory’. Focusing directly on the students, she argued, and with streamlined processes, BPP may be able to out-manouevre  the traditional public universities, not least because it will not be distracted by the teaching-hostile research traditions of the universities.

All of this is a major departure from normal government policies in these islands to date, in which private and for-proft institutions were given opportunities to develop their own higher education products but under the supervision or control of another degree-awarding body. But now, if we are about to see the arrival of for-profit higher education, we should be thinking through the implications.

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.

Technological university?

March 25, 2010

In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent, the President of the Institute of Technology Carlow, Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn (who is also the current Chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland), argues the case for the establishment of a ‘Technological University’, and expresses the hope that such a recommendation might emerge from the Higher Education Strategy Review Group. This is actually a reference to the proposal made by the institutes that they should jointly constitute such a university built on a federal structure.

There are two issues wrapped up in this proposal. One is the question as to the status within the higher education sector of the Institutes of Technology, and the question as to whether or how they could be given university status. On the face of it this is a matter to be progressed through the mechanisms of the Universities Act 1977, which sets out the process and the criteria for the establishment of additional universities. This in turn might prompt a discussion as to whether the particular mission of the IOT sector will be enhanced or compromised by such a change of status.

The second issue is one of strategic coordination and collaboration, and whether a federal university emerging from the IOT sector might produce gains in the pooling of resources and the alignment of strategy.

It is of course well known that some of the institutes have, separately, been seeking university status, and that there have been strong campaigns to secure this based both on their record of achievement and on local interests and needs. It is also worth saying that, all in all, the institutes have been a success story in the Irish educational landscape, and they have every right to raise questions about how that success can be developed and enhanced, not just in their interests but in the national interest. As university status has an iconic relevance in higher education, it is not surprising that this is what they are seeking, and I suspect that comments from the university sector about how the institutes are doing a great and necessary job where they currently are can only come across as patronising and self-interested. But equally, the institutes must be aware of the feeling in some university circles that they have received great benefits and are often given better support than the universities, for example in the former benchmarking process to determine salaries and in capital funding. Working conditions are also sometimes considered to be far more favourable in the IOT sector, though admittedly with less attractive ultimate career opportunities.

Perhaps what this needs, and maybe what the strategic review can deliver, is a better understanding of how we view university status and what significance we are to attach to it. At any rate we need to have an answer to the proposals that have been put and that continue to be raised, and we also need to ensure that cooperation between the university and IOT sectors is enhanced.

And while on the subject of Waterford…

October 23, 2009

My recent post on this blog about the number of universities in Ireland sparked something of a debate about the campaign to have Waterford Institute of Technology given university status. Over recent years various groups and organisations from Waterford and the South-East of Ireland have argued the case for a university in the city, and indeed there is an online petition.

This particular debate has, with its emphasis on the regional interests of that part of Ireland, perhaps obscured the wider and ultimately rather more important question of what constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide we are still just about maintaining between universities and other tertiary institutions has continued justification. It could be suggested that the conversion of the former polytechnics in Britain to universities helped to establish a settled position that within the overall category of ‘university’ there is room for institutions with very different missions, and that (for example) excellence in research does not need to be a condition. And I hasten to add that Waterford Institute of Technology has achieved some considerable research success.

The arguments for a university in Waterford, as expressed by various local interest groups, have been well articulated. The case against has perhaps been made less explicitly, but on the whole has been based on the view that the institutes of technology have a special mission that includes a commitment to sub-degree level teaching in close coordination with local business needs.

I am raising the issue here not so as to express a view myself, but because I am interested in seeing what the views on this broader issue of university status might be amongst readers of this blog – should they be willing to express them.

In the meantime, some of the issues, and some of the contributions to the debate on Waterford, are set out comprehensively on the 9thlevelireland website.

So do we need the historians here?

January 27, 2009

Yesterday I was engaged in a discussion with a number of colleagues from various universities, and the conversation turned to the disciplinary mix needed in a higher education institution to ensure that it can be a credible university. We agreed that it was possible to be a perfectly respectable university, and successful, while not having, say, a range of minority languages in the portfolio. But then someone suggested that any institution that wanted to be recognised as a bona fide member of the academy would have to have some subjects or disciplines; and the example given was history.

Well, DCU does not have a history department. We have had one or two trained historians at certain points, but they have worked in other areas. And to be perfectly frank, we are not about to establish a history school. Not that I have anything against history or historians; on the contrary, I read a lot of history myself, and as they say, some of my best friends are historians. But still, we won’t have history here as a discipline any time soon. So then, are we not a university? What is more, we don’t have theology or philosophy either. That means in fact that we don’t have two of the three disciplines that, in medieval times and for a long time afterwards, were considered the basis of all knowledge.

Once again, we are up against the problem that there is no consensus any more as to what constitutes a university. Almost nothing that defined universities in the past – from the required core disciplines to the teaching methods – are universally accepted now. But then again, probably all those in the room with me yesterday would have agreed that ‘Warnborough College‘ is not a university. And I suspect we would have had views about some currently non-university institutions seeking to make the transition to university status.

Over the coming months the university sector will be subjected to increasing analysis and pressure, and rationalisation and reform will feature large on the agenda. If we are to take part in this discussion in an effective and intelligent manner – as we must – then we need to get a fix on what actually constitutes a university at this point in time. It is no longer enough – maybe it never was – to say that you cannot define a university, but that you’ll know it when you see it.  We need to have an agreed view of the concept of a university that respects intellectual integrity while also allowing for diversity.

The questions we shall need to ask, and in some measure to answer, will include: what methodology of teaching and research marks out a university? What organisation structures are acceptable, and to what extent should they be based on disciplines? What kind of links are desirable or acceptable between universities and other organisations, including government agencies, business organisations and community groups? What is the meaning and significance of academic freedom in all this?

Unless we have a shared understanding of these matters, we will find it impossible to navigate the very choppy waters we are now entering.

To be or not to be a university

December 12, 2008

Next year, in 2009, twenty years will have passed since DCU became a university. Before that, it was the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE). Formally the change came through the Dublin City University Act 1989. However, that Act had only seven sections, and the main changes it introduced were a change of name and the conferring of degree awarding powers. In many other critical respects, the legislation governing DCU remained the National Institute for Higher Education Act 1980, under which the institution was subject to significant ministerial and government direction. Arguably DCU did not become a university in the full sense until the passing of the Universities Act 1997, from which point it was granted the same level of autonomy as the other (older) universities.

Ireland has throughout recent decades had what is generally described as a ‘binary’ higher education system: there are universities, with a teaching and research agenda and with higher levels of independent governance and autonomy; and there are the others, with various differences of nomenclature and status, generally with a teaching-only academic agenda, lower levels of independence, and more direct government control. Until recently one might have added also that these other institutions don’t generally have degree-awarding powers of their own – but that has been changing.

So between 1980 and 1989 – and arguably until 1997 – DCU/NIHE was on the non-university side of the binary divide. However, it refused to resemble the non-university stereotype, both through the development of a vigourous research programme, and also through its determination to drive higher education innovation at all levels. When therefore the government established an expert international panel to assess the case for university status, this panel indicated that NIHE was already operating at university level and was recognised accordingly, and that therefore it (and NIHE Limerick which was considered at the same time for university status) should become a university. So DCU (and the University of Limerick) slipped across the binary divide into the university sector.

Left on the other side were the Regional Technical Colleges (later to become Institutes of Technology), and various other private or special purpose colleges.

In the early 1990s in Britain, all of the polytechnics became universities; this in essence ended the binary divide in the UK at least informal terms; though it could be said that in practice it has remained, for nearly 20 years on in popular parlance and estimation the ex-polytechnics are still considered separate as ‘new universities’.

So apart from the looming anniversary, what is topical about all this? Well, the remaining binary divide in Ireland is coming under significant stress, and there is not a consensus as to how to deal with that. Influenced probably by the transformation of the polytechnics in Britain, a growing number of the Irish Institutes of Technology are putting forward arguments for a similar change here. One of them – Dublin Institute of Technology – made a bid for university status a few years ago and is doing so again now; as is Waterford Institute of Technology. Others again are looking at ways in which they might move quickly to a new status by various methods; and the institutes collectively are trying to persuade the government to explore the possibility if setting up a National Technological University in Ireland, whose constituent colleges would be the existing IoTs.

It would be difficult in some ways for DCU to resist these propositions, given our own history. But one way or another, if we are to make the case for or against another university (while some key commentators are actually calling for reduction in the number), we need to have marshalled our arguments very effectively. And many of these will have to focus on a question that we, as a country, have never tried to answer coherently before: what is a university? What characteristics must it have, what should its mission be? Can (or should) you have as a university an institution whose academic members are not research-active? What level of autonomy and sovereignty of governance should a university have? How should we measure the degree of external recognition that it has achieved?

It is difficult to say whether the binary divide should stay in place. Whatever the right answer is, higher education needs a general consensus about its mission and the institutional structures in which that mission will succeed. The menu of options being presented to us right now is extensive. But if we are to assess in a transparent and effective manner how the sector should develop, we must make a start. We need to ask, and to answer, the question as to what it is that constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide can or should be sustained.