Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Don't worry, give value...

A break from marking projects...

The HE press and lobbying groups are getting in a lather over referendum this week. And before that there is the usual rather undue focus on policy and lobbying with the state (in its widest sense) as the primary actor.

I just can't get away from the feeling that we have missed the point and have been for a long while.

Yes, we exist in a regulated industry. Yes, the world does not owe us a living. But we seem to forget that the reason why the UK HE sector does well is because we actually do deliver value to those we educate and do research with.

UK universities have become successful because they done this (and government has not got in the way THAT excessively). No matter what the imposed market structures may have been the research and teaching offer in the UK is sufficently strong for students, organisations and researchers to come across the world to engage with us (and often pay serious money for this).

Whatever the structure and policy of the state (in its widest sense), it is how we ensure that we keep providing value to our stakeholders that counts. The sector is full of committed and talented people who will find a way to make scholarship pay the bills.

We've had universities survive and thrive over a number of historical shocks for that reason. The sector has shown a remarkable capacity for reinvetion. We can continue to do so whatever happens, despite any shocks, so long as we focus on why UK HE has been successful up to now.

Like the economy in general, if you can offer something that gives real value to others, then they will come. We will do well to focus on that, and ask the state to allow us to do that.

We would also do well to help incolate this mindset into our students, so we can help them realise their potential when they become our alumni.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Academics ARE biased (but that's usually OK)

It was with interest that I read in the Times Higher Education an interestiing article exploring bias in EU-funded public policy-related professors when speaking about Brexit.

And it lead me to think - well of course. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I doubt if anyone really wants to make a career in what they do not believe in. As they are only human, they do have a point of view and it will leak out even if they are trying to be neutral. Of course, the funding system may (and I would argue does) distort the civil discourse in higher education on a more systemic basis. But to dismiss an individual on that alone would be wrong - that would be an ad homineum attack.

We just need to know where the argument is coming from and what outside influences may be in play (as in common in medical research). Then people can make up their own mind who or what they believe.

And making people to be able to make up their own minds about something (even if one may not agree with it) is surely what we working in higher education are about..

We can never remove bias, but for universities to maintain their role as a neutral space they can be transparent.

The article also notes the efforts of the academics concerned not to abuse their position.

And for those reasons I really see no problem in the situation that the article covers. What worries me are academic and orther 'independent' reports where the funding and influences are not in the open. I am unsure that the Brexit debate has been free of those.

Monday, 6 June 2016

How to burn an opportunity for universities to shine...

Marking can be time-consuming - but at least a break! And a chance to catch up on emails.

I received a rather distrubing email from one of my former universities. Since it is an open letter, I have no qualms about posting a link to it.

In summary, it is an open letter signed by the Principal and their Students Association President. It makes that case that the university gets a lot of EU funding and that Brexit would make this uncertain, so alums should think about this when voting.

A theme I will be likely to come back to again and again is the idea of the university as a 'neutral space'. Another is the corrupting influence of the state on the ideals of the university.

Now the role of the Students Association is a different matter. But for the University to have signed this off, I think was ill-advised.

First it gives an impression that the only reason that the university cares about the referendum is its funding stream. Wider aspects such as informing the debate in society are demoted.

Second, there is a danger that the Universty will alienate or further distance stakeholders, who may be more firmly in the leave camp.

Third, I cannot see that this letter would not have a 'chilling effect' on a free and open debate. Publically disagreeing with a stated position of the university will inevitably make some people pause for thoughr. Yes, there is a lot of softening language in the letter, but it is taking a position,

The first of the two are reputational. As an alumus I am not happy, but the University's reputation is its own to manage.

The final goes against what I believe universities are there for. What this letter loses sight of is that the university has a wider role in providing a neutral space for debate. The Brexit argument is also not really economic, it is really about issues of national vision and governance. The letter mentions this as an afterthought (in a way that could lead one to suspect that the 'debates' will be aimed to influence an agenda rather than get people thinking through all sides of the argument).

The above said, I would be a bad person to ask for a donation in the near future.