Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Re-thinking Universities? ideas still being sought

I attended the DCU/ASU conference on Re-thinking the University the other day and found it an interesting experience. I should first point out that I'm pleased that Ferdinand organised and hosted this event in an attempt to bring to a head some of the issues pertaining, in particular, to the remit of the Strategic Review of Higher Education. It's only a pity that the publication of this review has been so delayed that it wasn't available in time for this event and that also constrained what the review group's chairman, Colin Hunt could say. Similarly, it means there is still considerable uncertainty and a certain sense of trepidation within the sector.

Inviting a distinguished group of presenters, such as were listed on the programme, however still promised to lead to some interesting perspectives and discussion and a group of us from Galway travelled over to participate.

The first main keynote presentation was by Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University (ASU) and I have to confess that his style clashed somewhat with my (perhaps over-wraught) sense of empathy for academic staff and that clouded my first impressions of him. Clearly he has achieved a lot, clearly he has significantly reshaped that institution and in times of financial stress it is always relevant to hear how others have adapted to harsher climates. The problem was, for me, in the tone and in the throw-away examples or remarks which I suspect would not have gone down terribly well with many academic staff not involved in institutional management. In retrospect of course one can see the point he might have been trying to make about the lack of flexibility and imagination as well as the intransigence of many traditional academic structures, but the approach sounded too much like a berating of 'academics' themselves rather than the structures and institutional cultures within which they are situated. Furthermore, he didn't detail the financial and policy environment of the university particularly but rather talked about closing down departments, sacking staff, etc, in a manner which was too offhand for those of us who spend a lot of time dealing with overworked colleagues many of whom are under considerable stress and despite which have deep commitment to their students and their institution. Yes, it is possible to recognise that not all staff in any organisation are putting in their full effort, but it is not recognised enough just quite how many are contributing way in excess of what would be a typical workload outside the sector. Contracts, the individual private negotiation of salary levels, uncertainty over long term prospects and the reshaping of research priorities might well be visions of a possible future for Ireland, but other futures are possible of course and the lack of a counter-balance was a shame. It would have been fascinating, for example, to have paired Michael with Kathleen Lynch for example. Then both sets of approaches would be contrasted and challenge one another, somewhat robust debate would no doubt have ensued and it is often from a clash of ideas and perspectives that new ideas can emerge.

Of course the fact that he used 'cosmologists' in his examples of not particularly 'use-inspired' research had no bearing on my opinion- it is after all many years since I worked in that field. ;-)

Most of the other presentations (with perhaps one particular exception) were relatively less provocative, though a common thread of support for fees was pretty evident throughout the day. Tom Boland spoke of his own views on the issues facing Irish Higher Education, echoing some of his earlier words in recent meetings. Colin Hunt spoke of some of the topics which the strategy group have been considering, raising questions about the number of providers in the sector, workload models, funding, etc. Though of course he avoided revealing in advance any of the recommendations emerging from the process and so we are still none the wiser on that level of detail.

Colm Harmon gave a clear and well structured presentation (using his new iPad) on some of the economic aspects of the current situation in Irish Higher Education and outlined some of the flawed thinking in recent public debate. At one point whilst elaborating on a potential combination of fees plus various bursaries for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds he did imply that such could achieve similar outcomes to a fully progressive tax system ensuring that the poor were supported and the rich paid proportionately - this of course begging the question as to why the argument then shouldn't be for this progressive taxation structure in the first place. But, then that's politics...

Bill Harris, previously of SFI now with SF Arizona, gave an interesting personal perspective on how far Ireland has come in terms of research and held out hope for the future. His tone was slightly in the vein of a motivational speaker and there was a lot of focus on a recurring phrase of 'use-inspired research' since clearly people feel this has more cachet than 'applied research'.

John Hegarty spoke of the importance of the idea of the 'community of scholars' and illustrated how arts and technology are being brought together in an initiative focusing on aspects of performance and the creative media in work at TCD.

Debra Friedman, VP of ASU spoke of links with community, but again perhaps suffered from the trans-Atlantic translation deficit in which different presentation styles and nuances of terminology may cause some difficulty. Taking an example of a hispanic student from a faith-based organisation and working with him and eventually in partnership with the organisation was her narrative thread to outline their involvement with city districts and communities. Quite a different social landscape from that in Ireland of course, certainly also when one considers that the City of Phoenix gave the university over $200million to set up a city centre building/campus. Clearly, though the university still has some considerable work to do if their hispanic student population is as disproportionately low as she implied.

Other presenters included an offering from Graham May, a futurologist, who just said that the education system is an industrial model and needs to be changed - a point made many times by many speakers over the past several (at least) years, ironically. The spokesperson from IBEC argued that universities needed to meet the needs of business and that industry should have a role in determining course content and structure.

Prof. Sir Alan Wilson of UCL and the AHRC in England gave an interesting, brief talk initially about complexity of organisations with nice mentions of Boltzmann, entropy and other concepts that would appeal to the odd physicist in the audience (there were at least four of us, and I don't mean 'odd' in that sense!), but was a bit like a synopsis of a higher education management tutorial. There was a hint of inconsistency when asked to come up with an example of a university which perhaps was doing well in his terms he mentioned his own which has a 'fairly chaotic' structure.

The final presentation was by Steven Conlon a student who launched a bit of a diatribe against student leaders and representatives in Ireland, criticised those who were leaving the country to seek employment, argued for fees and for the abolition of the minimum wage. He also promoted the idea that tutorials in university should be given by unemployed graduates who would be required to work for their benefits (yes, he did use the word 'volunteer'). Bit of a far cry from the students of ‘68 perhaps.

So, all in all an interesting day and worth attending, but not necessarily if one was seeking to be heartened or enthused about future prospects. There was a lack of opportunity for discussion throughout, with a tight timescale, and the final session curiously was a breakfast panel the next day at 7:30-9:30 am. I'm not sure how many attended that particular slot, but would have been interesting to see how this late '80s early '90s corporate technique translated into HE.

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