Saturday, May 01, 2010

Salon debate: What are Universities for?

Just been speaking in the Brighton Salon debate against two University (Derby and Sussex) academics. This was ‘Election TV Debate’ night, so the people who turned up were almost all hardcore academics and students. So I opened with a question, “Does anyone know the names of the two shadow ministers for Universities?” Not one person in the audience could answer (David Willetts, Stephen Williams). In a way that’s a bit symptomatic of the problem - few care that much to do the deep thinking and refection. I've often noted a sort of 'tunnel vision' in debates on HE, as if the sector existed in splendid isolation, with values different from the rest of us unwashed and intellectually inferior beings, as if it is beyond criticism. There’s often a dearth of real facts in debates like these. Everything is discussed at an abstract level, ignoring the political context, economic realities and often the uncomfortable facts of the matter.

Coming back to politics, five years ago Universities were a big part of the election debate, Tuition fees were seen as the new poll tax and getting more and more kids to university was the aspiration. This time round the mood is of complete indifference. Universities are the invisible policy of this election. Loan-loaded students with low job prospects, the shambles that is the student loan system and an increasingly inward looking sector, over-reacting to any attempts at change, had led to it being totally ignored.

Management malarkey

Professor Dennis Hayes, from the University of Derby, kicked off on a philosophical riff about ‘not liking the question’, questioning the question being a standard philosophers’ reply to any question. He gave a defence of the University system as the protector of intellectual endeavour and values “without fear or favour”. I liked this definition, but can’t for the life of me see that fear or favour is any way the norm, now or in the near future, in universities. The only 'crisis' of values is in the heads of some academics.

The second speaker, Dr Blay Whitby, again defended the “eternal values” of the system. Both saw ‘managerialism’ as the Trojan horse that was eating away at these values from within. I’m not convinced by this image of the Universities as having a set of enlightenment values that have and will outlast political and cultural change. Academe is often well behind actual changes in society. I made the point that it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that they dropped religious affiliation as a condition for study, women couldn’t get degrees in some universities until well into the 20th century and their track record in terms of the meritocratic principle of entry has been appalling. The modern British University is largely based on the German (Humboltian) model and is largely a 20th century construct, not an enlightenment model.

‘Managerialism’ and ‘Managerial capitalism’ are the sort of pejorative terms you often hear from academics who need to blame something or someone -they're bogeyman terms, and were thrown about like rocks in riot tonight. The tone of was - we university bods are very smart you know – we don’t need this managerial malarkey. This is, of course, fatuous and hollow. First, Universities are large and complex institutions with large budgets and they NEED to be managed. Well managed institutions will provide better research opportunities and better teaching. Academics, who have rarely managed anything, assume that things just sort of coalesce into an organised structure - they don't. Secondly, the people they brand as ‘managers’ are often academics and ex-academics. There is this illusion of a Machiavellian, managerial class that is out to stymie the poor lecturers, kill freedom of speech and close down all the universities. It’s nonsense, of course, but when you’ve got loads of time on your hands you can constantly flame the blame. The abstract concept of ‘management’ is their bete noir, no better than paedophiles, grooming their way into positions of power, then pouncing when least expected. Being a Finance Director in a university must be one of the worst jobs on the planet. Thirdly, since most prestigious universities have lucrative Management and business schools, shouldn’t they be good at this? If not, why don’t they close them down?

Senates, Courts and Councils

Fewer still understand the way in which UK universities are run and managed. After the debate one person attacked, what she called the 'managers' at Sussex, but clearly had no idea who these 'managers' were. There was no knowledge of Senate, Court and Council structures and their very different roles or how they are elected.

Senates are dominated by academics as they are responsible for teaching and research and far from being loaded with private sector types or managers, normally have the head of libraries, trade unionists, student union rep and so on. Similarly with Councils, that have some external bods but are constrained by statutes. The Court is a sort of check and balance mechanism that normally meets once a year. It's all very driven by charters and statutes and really isn't a culture of managerial capitalism. Some Universities have a more streamlined structure, especially those that did not arise out of Royal Charters, these, in my opinion, tend to better run.

I’m a fan of the University system, and see them as institutions that are worth preserving and fighting for, but I despair at the idea that Universities are beyond criticism. Academics who defend freedom of speech and intellectual debate are very uncomfortable when it comes to criticism of their own methods and institutions, and often make outrageous claims about how decisions are made without any real knowledge of how their university is actually managed.

Sussex cuts or retailoring?

Many in the audience (they mostly taught or studied there) had strong views on the current attempts at Sussex to re-orientate the University for the future, with some job cuts. So here’s my first challenge. Some universities are well managed, others are not. The University of Cumbria has a £30 million deficit and is badly managed. Others have modest surpluses to build for the future and are well managed. Attempts to clear up bad management, by clearing up departmental deficits, poor research performance and overruns on spending, are seen as an attack on academic values. In fact, these are managerial devices designed to support academic activity. Let me illustrate this by example.

Sussex University want to do something about their crèche (I got hisses in the audience at even mentioning the word ‘creche’). Here’s the facts. The crèche had an OVERRUN of £350,000. I put that word in bold as it is usually deliberately ignored in the debate. The OVERSPEND is £5,600 on each child. This is public sector money and no way can you spend this sort of extra money without some fallout. What they’re trying to do is get the thing in line with other publically funded creches in the region. The University is not a bunch of childcatchers. They simply want to get the thing aligned with normal spending. Academics are not some special race who need special treatment, they’re people who deserve support at the same level as others.

Historical hysteria

Then there’s the supposed job cuts. I was accused of being ‘patronising’ for even putting a case here. It’s weird how even putting an alternative case is seen as morally evil. What’s worrying is the fact that academics and students have such narrow views of open debate. One attendee, who announced herself as a Professor of History, the head of the department no less, described the University of having ‘fingered’ certain staff (unfortunate use of language) in her department. Now I’ve been told by several people that Sussex plan to “stop teaching all pre-1600 history” (to be fair she didn’t make that claim). This is, of course, nonsense. Undergraduate teaching of pre-1600 will continue, however, there has been specialisation in the department around research and post-grad modern history (her speciality in fact). Without this sort of specialisation, most Universities would be in real trouble. It’s good for the system, good for students and good for researchers.

Sure there are job cuts, in the life sciences, engineering and history. But when you have dropping student numbers and declining research activity and performance you are duty bound to readjust for other future courses and research agendas. You can’t just add new courses and research topics at the top end without looking at poorer performance at the bottom. You must weed and feed to have a healthy, academic ecosystem. In fact, most of those job cuts will be handled through redundancy and adjustments to requested part-time work. What is ignored are the jobs that will be created and the research funds that are likely to flow, when these new research leaders (in cancer) bring their teams and fuel newer and better research.

Agricultural calendar and emptiness

The recent brouhaha over the general cuts in HE by Mandelson led to some hysterical exaggerations by the HE community and Mandelson found it easy to counter the hyperbole. What the critics conveniently ignored was the fact that the cuts were largely to the capital expenditure budget (zero on research). Now I’m in and out of Universities all of the time, and it is astonishing how underused and empty most University buildings are in practice. Some are like ghost towns. This is confirmed by HEFCE’s tracking of occupancy rates.

One major problem here is the agricultural calendar. Universities are empty for huge stretches at a time, as their timetable is based on the pre-industrial, go home for the harvest, timetable. If you want to do a course in October, you’ve got to wait eleven months to start. A simple adjustment to a Summer Semester, like many US universities, will increase occupancy and get more students through the system. This, I suspect, will be forced on the system.

Who goes?

The current University model is based on the 18 year old undergraduate. The whole university experience, for many a drunken meander through a three year degree, where you attend as few boring lectures as you can get away with, crib from your mates, then cram for finals, is as embedded today as it was thirty five years ago, when I attended. Yet more and more older students and part-time students, with a more focussed agenda, are doing degrees. The drunken meander is perhaps a luxury we can no longer afford.

Another solution to the clearly inefficient system is the use of technology. The Open University has nearly 200,000 students, nearly 20 times more than Sussex, yet none are on the campus. Learning, has to a degree, freed itself from the tyranny of time and location. I’m not saying we should abandon all face-to-face activity, but we can at least introduce a better blend of delivery.

Don’t lecture me

I’m no fan of the lecture, as there’s nothing in the psychology of learning that supports it as an efficient method for the transfer of knowledge. But what really annoys me is the refusal to record the damn things. The advantages are clear – students get a second bite at the cherry, with time to review, reflect and take notes. It’s an anachronism that needs to be addressed. What's so galling is that despite clear evidence that this increase student performance and attainment, the teachers won't do it. Research evidence, it would appear, counts for nothing when it comes to their own profession.

The failure of Universities to share has also led to huge duplication of effort and inefficiencies. It drives politicians to distraction. Clearly, IT and a host of other services could be shared. It worked with Janet and Superjanet, why stop there? Even at the level of teaching, why not re-use lectures and content from other institutions. In fact, students do, with textbooks and the millions who look at lectures online, when their own lecturers fail them. Look at the stats for MIT's Professor Levin in physics.

Teaching versus research

At one point the second university guy said that “teaching is incidental to a university”. This really annoyed me. For him a University is quite simply a body for research, with students as a sort of adjunct activity. Sorry, teaching is a core activity. He was disparaging about Open University students who he described as “not able to talk much” and many other students who he clearly saw as time wasters. This is a very common view among academics, that the quality of students is to blame, and that bad teaching has nothing to do with it. Their view is that 'I lecture, and no matter how bad I am, they should turn up and listen!' In the real world, students desert the lecture room, often after hearing a very poor first lecture. They retreat to the library and the comfort of their own room to study because they quickly learn that they’ll get their degree anyway.

One also has to wonder at the explosion in the quantity of research in the system, especially after the 1992 reforms. My suspicion is that we’ve had a flood of second and third rate research that does little to advance humanity and knowledge. One of the best questions from the audience was around the changing nature of knowledge and knowledge transfer. It got a little lost in the heat of the debate, but the academic speakers clearly were of the view that they had the knowledge and that people had to turn up to their lectures to get it. Sorry, it's about a thousand times more complicated than that. The lecture is a throwback to a time when there were no books. One need not attend any live lectures if they were recorded. There is room for lectures, but only if they're of sufficient quality in terms of content and delivery. Most, especially at undergraduate level, could be shared from the best lecturers in the world through recording and distribution.

Making the future

John Fulton, the founding Vice Chancellor at Sussex got it right when he described universities as 'Making the future’. All too often they get drawn back into defending the past. In any case, if this election delivers a Tory victory, the cuts will be savage and got help those Universities that Tory MPs did not attend. My guess is that fees will rise, deep cuts implemented and certain Universities left to merge or go bankrupt. Rather than let this happen, I’d like to see academics go for a ‘more for less’ agenda by being as bold in their institutions as they are in their own research. Here’s a shortlist of seven for starters:

  1. Loosen up the agricultural calendar – fast track and two year degrees
  2. Summer semester to increase capacity and reduce low occupancy
  3. More sharing of resources between universities
  4. Record lectures and use of pre-recorded, world-class lectures
  5. Weeding and feeding of departments for future health
  6. Cull of third and second rate research
  7. Every University mandated to adopt distance learning


Next months Brighton Salon talk will be by our Professor of History; on ‘Burlesque’. She is, apparently, an expert on glamour. Good to see that academia is holding fast onto those ideals of intellectual rigour and endeavour. I wouldn’t like to finger anybody, but…………


Andy Tedd said...

Entertaining blog (as ever) Donald.

I can't agree with all of it, for example 'Are universities more about research than teaching? Discuss' - but I think the broad thrust of your argument is against the commodisation of tertiary education we have seen since you or I were 21.

Being a BSc or BA is not the differentiator it was, but getting a degree costs a mint, there is a problem brewing there.

Meanwhile, the last generation to get 'free' uni can get funding for doctoral reseach if they are prepared to do it in Cool Britannia fields...

Clive Shepherd said...

No real comment except to say a fabulous posting.

Donald Clark said...

I agree Andy that it has become more commoditised but that's largely, in my opinion, because the system has refused to change and is stuck in an old paradigm. The steps I've recommended would decommoditise the system, allowing them to do more for less.
One thing about the commoditising argument is that it is most often uttered by parents who actually mean 'Too many people go to University, BUT MY KIDS ARE DIFFERENT'.

Rob said...

As ever, lots of interesting, and occasionally contentious stuff here. I would agree that teaching is central. The problem in recent years has been that the emphasis on the RAE (now the REF) has meant that university rankings and income have been very heavily tied to perceived excellence in research. The analogy would be with the way SATs and league tables hijacked the agenda in schools. If perceived worth wasn't so much wrapped up in research, then more attention would be paid to T&L.
Any incoming govt. could save loads of money with absolutely no impact on the quality of HE by scrapping the REF.
On the question of managers, you are right up to a point. Many managers are, of course, career academics, but increasingly they are recruited from outside the sector. I have come across several who had no experience of HE before being recruited from big business. And the ones that were academics do have a habit of forgetting very quickly what life in the classroom is like, and I could give you lots of chapter and verse on that.
The calendar is changing. Where I work we have a number of start dates for different courses through the year, and I've commented before on usage during non-term time. I'm sure Oxbridge colleges are deserted when the students have "gone down", or whatever the phrase is, but certainly in the post-92 institutions I know, there is a lot of activity through the year, and rightly so.
On lectures, you are right - I agree about recording, and have done so for some years now: students tell me they listen on their iPods while shopping. There will need to be a much better emphasis on teaching skill as an essential attribute of an academic if we are to raise the standard, I'm sure you'll agree. The irony is that the subject centres, which were set up to do that very thing, are now threatened by the cuts.
On the broader question of what universities are for, my feeling is that we have gone too far down a utilitarian route that sees the only real outcome as a job. I think they can, and should, be about more than that. As an academic in the humanities, my position is under threat by this new orthodoxy, so I suppose I would say that, but I would urge everyone interested in HE to read Martha Nussbaum's piece (unfortunately not online) in the current TLS, which makes, in my view, a brilliant (and practical) case for the study of the humanities.
Which brings me to the cheap shot at the end of your post on the professor of history. She is, I take it, Carol Dyhouse, and I'm sure she will have been well up to speed on the points you made about the history of universities, since she's the author of 'Students: A Gendered History' which examines the history of HE from a feminist perspective. Her current work on glamour, as far as I can see, seems to be a fascinating piece of research into the changing perceptions of femininity and fashion, and how society constructs images of women. I'd have thought it's exactly the sort of real-world research that humanities scholars are frequently enjoined to do.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks for these responses. On the REF, what would you suggest to replace them, as there has to be some attempt at the objective comparisons to channel funding to the right people, places and topics.
On managers, I still think that the vast majority of so-called managers are academics and ex-academics. My point was that there was a misconception that they were largely non-academic people.
On the calendar - I agree, some are changing but all too slowly.
Where we disagree is on the utilitarian intent. I don't really think this is true. Sure there's been extra funding for the sciences and maths, but only in response to societal changes. In fact, over the last decade there's been a huge expansion of the Universities and therefore a huge expansion in the humanities.
On Carol Dyhouse - she annoyed me because her 'cheap shot' was the idea that some abstract managers were irrationally 'fingering' some of her friends. I think this is bollocks. As you know academics know damn well who the laggards are in their departments, but do little to sort them out themselves, so that when someone else does it for them, they can apportion blame. I'm sure she's brilliant, but 'Burlesque'? Give me the cancer researchers any day.

Rob said...

Donald - yes we know who the laggards are, and I have spent many a weary hour trying to get people to address the issue, but in my experience, if you so much as suggest that someone isn't performing their duties properly, the grievance procedures and accusations of bullying arrive the next day.
Your last point about cancer research - which has hundreds of millions devoted to it - really confirms what I said. Yes, most people's response would be that cancer research is more important than social history research. I would argue that a civilised society needs both, and Martha Nussbaum's article offers a good rationale for that. And let's face it, neither you nor I know anything about Prof.Dyhouse's research beyond its main focus. Keeping an open mind is important isn't it?

Rob said...

Sorry, I didn't address the point about what would replace the RAE / REF. Well, nothing. Other countries manage perfectly well without one, and we did before 2001.

Donald Clark said...

Fair enough, but the key phrase for me is "isn't performing their duties". It strikes me, that unlike almost every other are of human endeavour, the 'duties' are largely absent. You can be an appalling teacher, third rate researcher and bum about for months and years on end, yet still draw the salary and pension. Why don't the good guys sort this out by agreeing to more rigour in teaching and standards, below which colleagues shouldn't drop. It strikes me that more rigorous management is needed, not less. Surely teaching and research would be better without the dead wood.

Rob said...

Hi Donald - yes, I agree, there is dead wood, and it needs cutting out. But the elaborate procedures and appeal system make it a long, time-consuming process. I do know of staff who have been rooted out, and it has taken literally years to do it. And one of the major associated problems with the RAE- driven culture is that academics will often be able to say that they have met their performance targets by publishing 4 papers or book chapters or whatever, and that they have never been given a performance target related to the quality of teaching. That's because, as you hint at in your post, many academics, particularly in the higher-ranked universities, have always worked in an environment where students and teaching have been a distant second priority after research. So we need a real sea-change in attitudes.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Rob, I think this post gets to the heart of the matter. The system has become gummed up due to 1) an excess of third rate research, 2) a distain for teaching (and often students), 3) procedures that protect inefficiency. This suggests, as you say, the need for a dramatic sea-change. I wish that would come from within, from people who really care about building the future rather than protecting the past. I suspect, however, that it will come through brutal cuts.

Rina said...

This post is such wonderful lesson in problem solving. Here in India,the students slog and P professors have a good time taking private tutions at home. Thanks for such educational posts.

Hans de Zwart said...

Hello Donald,

In your post you refer to research about the effectiveness of capturing lectures.

Could you give me some pointers to where I might find that particular research?

Thanks in advance,


Rob said...

As you say, the change is likely to come through brutal cuts rather than strategically targeted change. Already, whole departments (Philosophy at King's is just one) are earmarked for closure despite having world class reputations. Arts and Humanities will suffer disproportionately, because cuts there are easier to justify on (often spurious) economic grounds. Yes, some dead wood will go in the process, but a lot of live wood too. Academics with excellent records in every respect are already being shown the door, and the pace will accelerate markedly after the election. But somehow, I can't see mass redundancies at the alma maters of the likely members of the new cabinet.

Donald Clark said...

I blogged on evidence for recording lectures with some links

As I understand it, the Department of Philosophy (my degree subject) is not closing, some academics are going, that is different. Kings is under intense financial pressure and is doing what every University will have to do, realigning its priorities, even within that department. The problem is that every redundancy is treated like a major tragedy. Academic institutions have to shape themselves up for the future and choose some subjects over others. It is rarely a matter of closing down departments.
Interestingly, at Sussex, the cuts are certainly not in the arts and humanities but primarily in Science. What the critics fail to point out is the recruitment of other academics to strengthen the institution. It's all too one sided.
You have a very good point on political alma maters. That's why I like the current Labour cabinet. Few of the very top people went to Oxbridge and neither did Alan Langlands the CEO of HEFCE ( a great supporter of Universities in the wider sense). They don't have that level of snobbery and are genuinely inclusive in their thinking on HE, especially Gordon Brown.

Rob said...

You're right, not just arts and humanities- but with both maijor parties stressing that the only growth will come through the so-called STEM subjects, and with caps on numbers, it's not hard to see where the axe will increasingly fall. Here's just one article of many which show how departments across the subject areas are being downsized or closed.

Donald Clark said...

Read the article Rob, but what seems to be missing is a genuine debate about what the system is and should be. The system is so resistant to change that any change is automatically seen as 'bad. Rather than shape its own future it builds up deficits and inefficiencies and real estate to bursting point, then someone steps in to curb the excesses. There was no cut to the research budget this year by HEFCE and after 10 years of relentless expansion it is about time the system was reassessed. The Browne Report is expected later this year but much of the debate has been at the hysterical level (not you!).
One observation - the English educational system with its early humanities/science split at A-Level seems to engender a war between the two sides ate all levels. Is this healthy?

Rob said...

I agree the split is damaging. Something like the IB to replace A levels might help.
By the way, Philosophy at Middx is threatened:

Donald Clark said...

Rob. I'm a Philosophy graduate, and adore the subject, but Philosophy has seen an unprecedented expansion in UK Universities over the last decade. At Middlesex there's 12 philosophy students and 6 staff. One member of staff for every two students. It makes no sense when there's demand in other areas. The bottom line here, and there is a bottom line, is that foreign students don't do these subjects, yet foreign students subsidise UK staff and students. This means getting the fuel mixture right, not protectionism over every subject in every University.

Rob said...

Well, I don't know the figures, but this seems to suggest that they have over 40 doing MA alone.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the link to those blog posts!

Donald Clark said...

Rob - the 'Counterfire' site seems a little polemical. The confusion on numbers comes because people fold students who are not doing Philosophy alone into the mix i.e. mixed degrees and students just taking philosophy courses. The Middlesex department specialises in some topics, such a Marxism and psycho-analysis, that many see as peripheral to the subject (I agree with this view). Religious studies students also gets folded into the omelette and I draw the line at that one.

Donald Clark said...

Rob - the 'Counterfire' site seems a little polemical. The confusion on numbers comes because people fold students who are not doing Philosophy alone into the mix i.e. mixed degrees and students just taking philosophy courses. The Middlesex department specialises in some topics, such a Marxism and psycho-analysis, that many see as peripheral to the subject (I agree with this view). Religious studies students also gets folded into the omelette and I draw the line at that one.