Thursday, April 20, 2006

structures, academe and public purpose + news roundup

(1) Just back from our annual "Deans and Heads Conference" which this year focused on Academic Structures. Of course, this is a highly topical issue in Ireland and there has been a large amount of press coverage over the last year or two of changes being implemented in various institutions. For a while the debate in UCD, Trinity and UCC spilled into the letters pages of the national press, but one "positive" outcome for the institutions is that they have created the public impression (echoed by politicians' comments) that they are on the move and pushing the modernisation agenda in Irish higher education ahead. The unfortunate corollary is, perhaps, that those institutions that have not engaged in such public spats are potentially perceived as not implementing change, when in fact this is not the case. Some were ahead of the game in areas such as semesterisation, for example. Still that's PR for you! This is the point made by NUI Galway's President some time ago in a letter to the Irish Times.

In our meeting today, we had useful contributions from colleagues in UCD, UCC and NUI Galway along with speakers from Switzerland and the US. All very thought-provoking. The main issue though is clarity of purpose before any particular approach to restructuring is taken, to ensure that change will bring about increased effectiveness rather than change for its own sake. Furthermore, as one of the keynote speakers pointed out, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we are public institutions and as a consequence owe a responsibility to serve that public, and we must be cognisant of the fundamental differences between a profit seeking commercial entity and such a public body. The structures and approaches to governance of the former are not necessarily appropriate for the latter.

The Registrar pointed out the importance of there being an academic rationale for any proposed amalgamations of departments and units and examples were presented where opportunities for new programmes and increased research activity had resulted. Certainly there was plenty of food for thought and the discussion will gather pace over the next few weeks as specific, detailed plans are drawn up locally.

(2) Other news snippets: the Dept of the Taoiseach has finally named the members of the new Task Force on Active Citizenship (1). As we've discussed before on this blog, this group will be charged with developing a strategy to increase civic participation in Irish society, something that we are particularly interested in given our Community Knowledge Initiative and our forthcoming book (McIlrath & MacLaren) on civic engagement and higher education.

(3) De Montfort University in Leicester has hit the news in the UK (2) for upgrading failed student grades by as much as 14% in order to ensure no-one failed their pharmacy course. Staff had been told that the previous failure rate was putting their jobs at risk.

(4) The Times Higher and the Guardian (3) a couple of weeks back reported that Warwick University is preparing to rename all academic staff as "professor" from next academic year. Of course, its just a change in title and not salary! However, it's sure to sow the seeds of confusion.


(3)Guardian article

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