Posted tagged ‘university strategy’

University strategy – UCD

April 22, 2010

It is always good to see a university launch its strategic plan – and this week University College Dublin has published its new strategy for the period 2010-2014: Forming Global Minds. The launch itself may have been low-key, or at any rate I wasn’t invited (mental note: make sure to invite UCD President Hugh Brady to DCU’s strategic plan launch on May 10!). But UCD’s plan is a substantial one, and I hope nobody will take offence if I say that it has strong echoes of  DCU’s strategic plan launched in 2001, Leading Change. The latter plan first introduced the idea of academic themes to inform research and teaching priorities, and highlighted the importance of innovation as a key objective of the university. Both of these strategic perspectives are contained in UCD’s new plan, and they work well there also.

What the strategy now published by University College Dublin has in common with DCU’s last two plans, and our new plan to be launched shortly, is a concern to ensure that the university’s priorities reflect its desire and its capacity to enhance national economic, social and cultural regeneration. DCU in its new plan will emphasise the importance of the ‘translational’ impact of its research and teaching, and UCD refers to the significance of making an impact.

The times we are in also influence the content of UCD’s strategy, with references to the need to adapt the profile of the student body to maximise revenue. And of course there are passages on the TCD-UCD ‘Innovation Alliance’, the strategic partnership between these two institutions intended to support the potential to create an economic impact.

It has always been DCU’s intention to have the best possible relations with our friends and colleagues in Dublin (and of course throughout the state), and I personally wish UCD well as they develop this new strategy for the next five years.

Let us be guided by evidence

June 15, 2009

On Marian Finucane’s RTE radio show this Sunday morning there was a discussion about university tuition fees and related matters, and as part of that there was an intriguing contribution by Dr Sean Barrett of Trinity College Dublin. He argued in essence that universities in Ireland are over-funded. In support of these thesis he suggested that current funding per student stands at €13,300, but that for what he called ‘chalk and talk’ subjects such as his own (Economics) the actual cost per student is €1,100.  These figures were taken at face value by the other guests on the show.

First, the figure of €13,300 is not a meaningful one. I presume that Dr Barrett arrived at it by dividing the total recurrent grant and fee income by the total student numbers. But that would be a misleading figure,as it takes in excessively expensive programmes such as medicine and pharmacy, as well as the overseas student fee. In the meantime his suggested cost per student of €1,100 (he also mentioned 4c per student per lecture, by the way) is interesting. I don’t know what he thinks constitutes the cost, but presumably from the figure he is looking at marginal costs only, so he is discounting the cost of providing a building, equipping it, heating it, cleaning it, repairing it, providing security for it, and so forth. I imagine he is talking about academic staffing costs only. Trinity College has around 15,000 students, so he believes that the cost of the College’s educational programmes is (or should be) €16.5 million. I think that may buy him around 200 members of academic staff. In fact, Trinity has over 800. So he is suggesting that the College can safely cut its staff numbers by 75 per cent, or if you like, worsen the student-staff ratio by 400 per cent. In short, the point being made on the show had absolutely no merit on a factual basis. The implication that Dr Barrett was trying to advance – that the bulk of the money was being wasted on bureaucracy and unnecessary strategy planning – has in fact no evidence to back it.

My reason for mentioning this is not to be unduly critical of Sean Barrett, who has a strong record as an economist willing to raise difficult issues, and who moreover has an excellent record of providing support for students. But it occurs to me that we are in danger of taking all sorts of policy decisions on higher education in Ireland based, at best, on anecdotal evidence or calculations made on the backs of envelopes. Or to put it another way, using evidence as a basis for decision-making seems not to be in fashion. I have lost count of the number of times senior politicians have said that they have ‘evidence’ of various shortcomings in universities, only to find that this evidence consists of complaints they have come across in their postbags. Such complaints should of course be taken seriously, but they are not ‘evidence’ of anything. We need to overcome the temptation to use hear-say and anecdotal stories as a good basis for policy formulation, or even for establishing policy formulation reviews.

The same is true of unproven assertions. In the same programme Sean Barrett stated, as a fact, that Science Foundation Ireland and other science funding programmes had produced no results. In fact, the contrary evidence is overwhelming, and the significance of science research is supported in particular by those bodies whose task it is to secure investment for new business and employment.

Opinionated public discussion is a good thing as it encourages us to assess and question; but on its own it is not a basis for decision-making. We should not be making policy on the back of the views of the last person propping up the bar, however emphatic his pronouncements. We need to see that what we are deciding in relation to higher education is vital for the future of the country, and requires proper analysis based on the facts.

There is always room for a debate, and we must accept that there are different policies that could be adopted. But the case needs to be made every time, and the only acceptable case is one based on properly assembled evidence. So, no more wild assertions, and no more anecdotal reasons for new policies. Let the evidence speak.

And as a postscript, it is worth repeating the point of my previous post that we will run the risk of this kind of uninformed debate unless the universities themselves get better at communicating our key messages.

How universities are run

April 30, 2009

It seems to me that one of the big debates that should take place, both in Ireland and elsewhere, over the next few years is what model of governance and management is most appropriate for higher education institutions. There are of course many different possible models, and many points of view amongst all the stakeholders. But one might say that on the opposite ends of the spectrum are, on the one side, those who would argue that universities are communities of scholars who should direct their own affairs by consensus, presided over by a primus inter pares with mainly ceremonial functions; and on the other side, those who argue that today’s universities are modern organisations that need to be led by a strong management responsible to corporate-style governing boards, with appropriate functions and powers delegated to a series of middle managers.

No university – or none that need detain us here – is run on the basis of either of these extreme models. Most have governance and management that fall somewhere between these two positions; variations may be due to the age of institutions, their history, their purpose and strategy, their location, and any number of other factors. But it is also clear that, in some cases, their is disagreement amongst stakeholders as to whether a particular model is appropriate or workable.

In an article recently in Times Higher Education, the general secretary of the British University and College Union, Sally Hunt, argued that too many universities in the UK are run by autocratic university heads notionally reporting to ineffective governing bodies, and that decisions are regularly taken with profound effects on the academic community without proper consultation and without consent. In the article she did not particularly make it clear what type of governance she favours (beyond very general references to the accountability of university leadership to the academic community), but she is clearly unhappy with the pattern she believes she has identified in the system. Her views may be similar to some that have been expressed in Ireland about a culture of ‘managerialism’, which I have mentioned in a previous post in this blog.

Sally Hunt mentions Oxford and Cambridge as two universities that are ‘governed, at least nominally, by the academic community.’ On its own website, the University of Cambridge describes itself as a ‘self-governed community of scholars’. But then, on a separate part of the website entitled ‘how the University works’, the operation of the university is set out in all its complexity, with an admission that ‘the way in which the University governs itself can appear complex.’ The reputation and status of Cambridge (and other institutions like Oxford, Harvard and Yale) make this model acceptable to at least some bodies that deal with it (though I have heard people say that their experiences with Cambridge would stop them from working with the university in the future) – but in any case for the rest of us a more transparent and accessible system of decision-making is needed if we are to succeed. But what system?

Most universities will need to have a system of governance and management that, on the one hand, is responsive and flexible and decisive, and on the other is sensitive to the views, needs and interests of those who make up the university community. Autocratic dictatorships are unlikely to work for long, but it is equally true that chaotic and complex committee structures will turn off those who need to support and work with universities. Governing bodies will need to have members with knowledge of and experience in corporate governance and accountability, but will also need to have a composition that gives some confidence to university faculty and staff that their interests are being respected; and it will also need to be borne in mind that very large governing bodies are almost always ineffective in providing effective governance, and tend to become debating chambers that often miss the real issues of strategy and direction.

As the higher education sector is subjected once again to a strategic review, these issues deserve proper attention. It is not clear that they are receiving it, yet.