Friday, 30 July 2010

Basic skills: Cookery and courtesy

Aside from their academic achievements and qualifications, what basic skills do students need to pick up to make the best of their university years? Lots of things come to mind, but here I focus on just two, namely cookery and courtesy.

A few years ago one of my students came to see me and related a slightly alarming story. He told me that the previous evening there had been a fire in his hall of residence, with the fire brigade called out and everyone evacuated, as is standard procedure. And what caused the fire?Apparently it was a little 'cooking accident'. Specifically, a student (and I always wondered whether it was actually my student) was wanting to cook a chicken for a late supper. He removed the plastic wrapping, and deposited the chicken into a frying pan containing very hot fat. Now, at the best of times this would never have been a very smart idea, since it's hard to fry a whole chicken without risking that most of the interior hardly gets warm, let alone cooks properly. However, this wasn't the best of times, as the chicken was still frozen! As a result, the hot fat spattered everywhere and burst into flames - hence the fire. Luckily, no one was hurt and only fairly limited damage was done to the kitchen; it could have been a lot worse. So lesson 1: never attempt to cook a chicken unless it is completely thawed out.

Another of my students was an excellent cook, but this brought its own problems. For some boys in her hall of residence persuaded her to cook for them, the deal being that if she cooked, they would shop for the ingredients and she would get a free meal out of it. At first, this worked out well as she found it a good way of getting to know other students. After a while, though, she got fed up with the boys assuming she would always cook for them, and began to feel increasingly exploited. That was the situation when she came to see me to ask my advice. I asked her whether the students for whom she was cooking were at all interested in learning how to cook for themselves, e.g. picking up some helpful tips from her efforts. "Not at all", she said, so I advised her simply to stop providing cookery services to such an idle bunch. She was a bit hesitant, as she didn't want to quarrel with anyone. But quite soon she managed to stop the service, citing other commitments and pressure of work. Next time I saw her, she was much happier.

Now it's certainly possible to survive tolerably well these days on pizzas and a variety of food that just needs to be heated up in a microwave. But this isn't the cheapest way to live, and also not the most nutritious. So I do think it would be good for all our students to learn some basic cookery either before they come to university or in their first year or so. Such skills are not only handy during the student years, but they're invaluable later. Personally, I think it would be great if we could get to a situation where it was even rather embarrassing for a student to have to confess that they hadn't a clue about cooking. Everyone should learn how to cook, and the earlier in life the better.

Surprisingly, not only do we seem to have a fair number of students who lack basic cooking skills, but we also have students whose social skills are not as well developed as they might be. This is partly a matter of how widely read, how knowledgeable about the world, and how articulate some of our students are, but for this post my concern is much less elevated than all that. It has to do with our students' elementary professional courtesy. Many people these days, including I think some of my younger academic colleagues, are not unduly bothered about this, and don't greatly care how their students address them, how they compose e-mails, and the like. For me, though, and I think also future employers, these things matter.

Part of what we are doing when teaching our students - in addition to trying to convince them that economics is an endlessly fascinating subject - is to prepare them for the world of work, a world of professional relationships that are sometimes very informal, but often still quite formal in nature. Given this aspect of what we are doing, I always treat e-mails between students and myelf as professional communications, just as letters used to be. In practice, this approach has a number of implications:

(1) I always insist on being addressed as 'Professor Hare', or at the very least, 'Professor'. No use of my first name by undergraduates, though I do usually address my students by their first names. An e-mail that doesn't give me any name at all - formal or informal - gets the same response mentioned in the next paragraph.

(2) E-mails must be written in sentences, in good English. Some students are inclined to write messages using lots of slang, casual wording, bad grammar, or abbreviations as if they were sending me a text message (which they never do as I don't tell anyone at work my mobile phone number). When I receive a message like this I simply return it and inform the student concerned that I am always happy to provide help and advice, but that I only do so when the request is put to me politely and in good English. Amost invariably, such a message from me elicits an apology from the student concerned and a well written request for help, to which I immediately respond. Interestingly, some students have even come along to see me after getting such a message, to explain that 'no one ever told them how they should communicate in a proper, professional manner'. I've even been thanked on a number of occasions for the hard line I take on matters of courtesy. One wonders what our secondary schools are doing in this regard, but they're certainly not doing the students any favours.

(3) When advice is provided, I generally expect my students to acknowledge it with at least a one line message of thanks. As I point out to my students, taking the trouble to say 'thank you' costs very little effort and fosters good will, making me even more willing to provide help, advice, and support on future occasions.

Thus as I see it, being a student involves taking part in a whole series of professional relationships with academic staff, with a variety of support staff, and even with fellow students when joint projects and exercises are undertaken. It seems to me that learning early on how to conduct these relationships with a high degree of professional courtesy is helpful for all concerned. I know I'm quite old fashioned about these things, but I shall stick to my guns - courtesy matters!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Private sector provision of higher education

Today it was announced, with the full approval of the higher education minister, David Willetts, that the BPP College of Professional Studies is being given the designation 'university college' with immediate effect. BPP was founded in 1976, and it already has degree awarding powers, the only private sector company in the UK enjoying this privilege. The new announcement gives BPP College university status, though BPP will remain a private sector business and it will receive no public funding (and it will be free to set its own fees). Since last year, BPP has been part of the same international group to which the well known University of Phoenix belongs. It offers a range of management and professional programmes - some leading to degrees, some to diplomas and certificates - and delivers them very flexibly through a large number of associated study centres, both in the UK and in many other countries.

How should one react to such private sector provision in the higher education field?

Some of the initial reaction is, I think, rather predictable and a little disappointing. For a start, the UCU (University and College Union) took the view that private universities would not be in students' interests; and argued further that HE institutions should be 'publicly funded and democratically accountable'. The union also asserted that allowing private sector providers to call themselves universities would be bad for the reputation of British universities, and would also pose a threat to academic freedom and standards. The government, in contrast, sees the latest move as a way of offering additional university places without further straining public budgets; and also envisages that private providers might prove to be more innovative in their teaching and course delivery than traditional universities.

So the battle lines are drawn up! Now let me comment briefly on some of these alleged drawbacks and advantages of private provision.

The Union, I'm afraid, appears to be stuck in a past of plentiful public funding and also comes over as being quite patronising towards students. For surely, if BPP and similar institutions are really not in students' interests, one would have thought that most students would be smart enough to see this for themselves and not sign up. In that case, BPP attracts no students, makes no money, and folds - end of story. So why on earth should we even care whether private universities are good or bad for students? Simply let students make their choices - aided by whatever information can be provided about their courses, study facilities and costs - and then leave it to competition and market forces to determine which can be viable.

And what, I wonder, does the Union have in mind when it talks of democratic accountability, standards and academic freedom? Universities are there to deliver high quality teaching and to undertake research, and neither function has anything to do with democratic accountability. If we are accountable to anyone it is to our students first and foremost; then to the funders of our research; and last to the funding council through which our public money is channelled. Somehow, all this has to be reconciled with vital principles of academic freedom that underpin everything we do. But it's not obvious to me that a private provider of higher education would wish to challenge or undermine such core principles.

As for standards, no doubt the Union is thinking of the existing complex and over-bureaucratic mechanisms set up to monitor and judge teaching and research in public universities. But the lack of such mechanisms in the private sector does not mean that no one cares about quality there, it merely means that quality is being assured in a different way, through a mix of internal procedures, competition, and reputation. Why should we imagine, or assume, that a private sector institution would necessarily produce academic programmes of lower quality than those found in public institutions? I see no reason why this should be so.

Last, there is the government's interesting remark about innovation. My own experience in universities suggests that our public institutions can be impressively innovative in the design and delivery of teaching programmes, but efforts to change often meet with a good deal of resistance - passive and otherwise - and significant change can be quite slow. So if it does turn out that private providers really are nimbler than we are, quicker to adapt their provision to newly evolving market needs, opportunities and conditions, then we could soon be facing some very tough new competition. That's not, of course, in any sense a bad thing, but it could make our lives rather more uncomfortable than we are used to. Let's see how well we can adapt.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Help! Suddenly I'm not an economist any longer.

After a whole career working as an economist, I discovered yesterday that I have no evidence that I was ever qualified to be one.

In an earlier post (dated June 22nd) I mentioned that I only have one degree certificate from my three degrees, that being the Cambridge University certificate for my BA degree in mathematics, a degree programme that I completed with first class honours. However the degree certificate only mentions that I have been awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts (and that's not even in Latin, disappointingly), but says nothing about the subject area or class of degree. So to prove that I was ever a mathematician, my only recourse would be to ask my college to wade through their old records from the 1960s.

My subsequent degrees were from Oxford University, and what I thought they were was a BPhil in Economics (1969), and then a DPhil in Economics (1973). But I never got the degree certificates when I should have, and when I consulted Oxford University recently I was told that it was too late to get certificates. Instead, they could send me letters confirming that I had completed the requirements for each degree, and these letters finally arrived yesterday. Imagine my surprise when I read them! The letters did indeed confirm that I had degrees from Oxford University, and my dates were both correct. But both degrees were stated to be in Social Studies.

Now, to be fair, social studies is an extremely broad field and it does include economics. But it would have been nice to have qualifications that confirmed somewhere what I actually did. It seems I am out of luck in that regard - unless, again, I resort to writing to my Oxford college directly. It's just as well that I am pretty much retired, and hence not really needing to prove my qualifications at this stage of my life!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Are students customers?

It's very tempting to dive into the growing debate on UK student funding. In the last few days we've had a speech by Vince Cable advocating a graduate tax, lots of critical commentary about that idea, more calls for higher and more flexible fees, and then a remark by the Scottish education secretary, Michael Russell, firmly rejecting the reintroduction of fees in Scottish universities and asserting that a 'uniquely Scottish solution' will be found to our university funding problems - whatever that might mean. For now, though, I'll resist the temptation to comment on these important funding issues, not least because there will be plenty of opportunity later in the year when Lord Browne's review publishes its report.

Instead, I'll set down a few thoughts on another quite tricky issue, the idea of the student as a 'customer'.

In my long distant student days this would have seemed a wholly ridiculous idea, for back then a university education was still only available for a relatively small subset of the relevant age group - well under 10% - and for most of us it was regarded as a massive privilege, an opportunity to build new lives for ourselves. We certainly never gave a thought to any sort of 'customer rights', and mostly we arrived at university knowing that it was down to us to make the best of it, to get everything out of it that we could. We quickly discovered that there were good and bad lecturers, good and bad tutors, and few firm constraints on what we did, how hard we worked. In some ways the lack of formal structure was both frightening, because it was so different from the excessively structured routine of secondary school, and liberating, because it enabled us to organise our work very flexibly around a huge range of other activities that we could choose to pursue. A great time.

Nowadays, of course, much has changed, not least the scale of the university system, with over 40% of young people going on to further study, mostly aiming for university degrees. At the same time, especially in England, fees have become an accepted (albeit not necessarily liked very much) part of the system. And taken together, these two changes are giving rise to an increasing emphasis on the student as a customer. So what does this mean, exactly, and how far should it be welcomed?

The bigger scale of the university system means that our students are drawn from a wider range of abilities than used to be the case, and many of the academically weaker ones (and actually, not only these) need more support from their respective universities in order to navigate a path through to successful completion of their degrees. They need both academic guidance and pastoral support of various kinds, and it seems to me entirely right that most institutions have adapted over the years to provide such support.

The charging of fees, however, seems to me to make students think more like customers in a shop, seeing themselves as purchasers of a 'product'. This then gives rise to pressures for change that are, I think, not so desirable as compared to the more general student support discussed in the previous paragraph.

For in my view, offering a degree programme is not really the same thing as selling any other product, such as a packet of biscuits. Most importantly, in higher education there is a huge information asymmetry between buyer (student) and seller (university) which is not present in the case of the packet of biscuits just mentioned - with most everyday products, buyer and seller know pretty well what the product is, and what its quality ought to be, competition normally wiping out producers of inferior products. The student, in contrast, cannot know what a degree programme is going to be like, and what it might do for them, until he/she has experienced it; and there is at present only quite constrained competition between different universities in the UK.

Now, to some extent the information asymmetry can be overcome by the publication of league tables and various comparative reports on universities that can be used to help future students make their choices of where to go, what to study. These are analogous to the consumer reports that often help us choose household goods, and they can be quite helpful. However, there are also dangers in this approach, since league tables can effectively pressurise institutions to do things that are not necessarily all that great in terms of the educational process we are engaged in. Let me give a few examples.

(1) One indicator often published is the share of 'good' degrees awarded, i.e. the share of first class and upper second class degrees. There's just a possibility, I say no more than that, that the very use of such an indicator might encourage institutions to ease upwards over time the share of such degrees they award.

(2) Some comparative reports mention typical student 'contact hours' each week, i.e. lectures, tutorials and other types of contact, and some universities have come in for criticism when their contact hours in certain courses have been deemed (by the media, often) to be 'too low'. At times, commentary on this issue seems to imply that students are not learning anything unless they are actually being taught, which is surely nonsense. After all, students are supposed to do a great deal of independent study for most degrees, a crucial detail too often forgotten by the media (and others).

(3) Similarly, universities are increasingly pressed to provide rapid feedback on student assignments, and to provide copious amounts of course material either on line or in the form of printed handouts. This is fine, and I certainly support the provision of good, timely feedback. But I have been surprised in recent years when quite large numbers of students have not troubled to collect their marked essays from me - so although I would have provided comments, they never benefited the intended recipients! Course material, too, is no bad thing, though I do think many more students could usefully learn how to take good lecture notes and take more control of their own learning. Two points follow: First, we are there as academic staff to provide needed support to our students, most definitely not to 'spoon feed' them; and second, the educational process is a two-way street, with responsibilities on both sides. So I would argue that students are not customers in the commonly understood sense of that term; rather, they are participants - indeed partners - in a shared educational experience. That's something very different.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Academics don't really retire, do they?

A little over three years ago, I started thinking seriously about early retirement. This was for a mix of reasons - partly to do with my health, partly to do with the growing bureaucratisation of universities, excessive 'management', and the like. My thoughts had nothing to do with any feeling that I was getting too old for the job, or that I was losing interest in economics or my students, quite the contrary. I have always been one of those fortunate people who love what they do, and I still do. However, at least a partial retirement seemed like a good idea, as I thought it might get me out of the parts of the job I liked least, namely form filling and administration; and to a large extent, so it transpired.

When I first approached the university, the human resources people proved very helpful, and quite quickly a deal was reached whereby I would formally retire at the end of 2007, and then be re-engaged on a one-third contract for three years from January 2008. This seemed ideal. As soon as all this came under discussion, another School in the university approached me and offered another part-time job, a one-quarter contract to work on a new degree programme, the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration). This sounded like an interesting challenge, so I agreed to that as well. As a result, in 2008 and 2009 I only succeeded in retiring for 5/12ths of the time, as my two very different part-time jobs in different schools meant that I was still working for 7/12ths of the time. This year (2010), I reorganised my 'work portfolio', which proved to be a very bad idea - more on that in a later post.

How does the university help staff in their progress towards retirement? Well, in my case, aside from some nice social events to mark the transition in my life, the university did three things. First, the HR section sent me a formal letter thanking me for my services to the university since about 1975 - which was a bit of a surprise, as I didn't start at Heriot-Watt University until 1985; but I suppose little mistakes like that are bound to occur now and again. Second, they sent me a book about 'enjoying your retirement' or something like that, with lots of information about managing finances (though surely we should have figured out how to handle our money by that stage of life), activities we might take up to keep us occupied (I particularly remember an item about the National Jigsaw Society, which I still haven't followed up - a careless oversight), and rather macabre topics such as writing a will. I expect for many people, this could have been quite a useful volume, but not much of it appealed to me I must admit. Last, the University invited me - on several occasions - to training sessions on 'preparing for retirement'. I have spoken to colleagues who said they found such sessions helpful, but I (politely) declined to attend.

Thus I have approached retirement in a rather gradual way, via a period of part-time work. The idea of just stopping work very abruptly has never greatly appealed to me, so I'm pleased to be in a profession where it is quite common to retire over a period, and where institutions actually facilitate and support such an approach. This feels very civilised, not least because the brain doesn't just switch off on a particular date (or so I hope and believe!), and old habits of thinking and writing don't end either. Hence with luck, I can continue to do academically interesting things, albeit in a more leisurely and less pressured way than formerly, and still contribute in various ways to my university.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Research support - Where are we heading?

At long last we know that the first review of research carried out in UK universities under the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be delayed by at least a year, until 2014. This decision had been expected for a while, and it was finally announced last week by higher education minister, David Willetts, in a speech on science policy delivered at the Royal Institution, London. The delay to the REF, seemingly, is to allow time for ministers and the academic community to come up with an agreed and acceptable way of measuring that elusive notion, 'research impact'. This is proving very difficult and contentious so far, not surprisingly, and it will be interesting to see whether 'impact' can be measured in a way that makes any sense. Personally, I'm rather sceptical, and for some time now I have been expecting the new REF to turn out very much like the old and familiar RAE (Research Assessment Exercise), with at most minor changes.

As for science policy, while the minister acknowledged that cuts were coming, though with no details likely to be available until the Autumn spending review, he clearly wanted to demonstrate the government's continuing support for science and scientific research in the universities. Blue skies research and serendipity - the process whereby research in one field now and again throws up unexpected insights or discoveries in another - are bound to be part of the process. But why does it actually matter for the UK to have a big, university-based research establishment when most of the world's research, and most new discoveries, happen elsewhere?

Sensibly enough, David Willetts mentioned national pride as one factor. Far more importantly, however, he stressed the need for UK plc to have a high level of absorptive capacity so that we can adapt and incorporate into our domestic production ideas that might have been generated elsewhere. To do this we need a strong domestic scientific and engineering capability, both doing research - some of it at the frontiers of world science - and teaching the large numbers of people needed to enable our economy to be competitive internationally. For most innovations, and most new products, cannot just be taken down 'off the shelf' and incorporated into production without any difficulty. That slightly naive approach just doesn't work. So we need folk who understand the new technologies, really understand them in a very profound way, if we are to apply them successfully, and even develop them further.

As a side remark here, it's worth noting that many developing countries run into problems in using advanced technologies effectively precisely because they lack the sort of research-based science and technology establishment that I am discussing here. This is an area where well focused aid might prove very valuable.

It seems to me that the above line of argument provides at least the bare bones of a highly compelling case for science and technology to be pursued in our universities to the most advanced levels we can manage, though it doesn't get us very far in terms of agreeing the 'optimal' budget for such activities. For that we shall have to wait.

The minister offered three further ideas about ways in which government could support science and innovation. The first is to support shared research facilities, where sharing here can mean either multiple universities, or universities plus private sector companies. In the latter case, sharing can be a means of facilitating better and stronger interactions between universities and firms, perhaps including joint research and support for spin offs; and it can also provide a channel for bringing some private funding into universities. The second idea is to use the public procurement system more actively to promote innovation, which could be done in many different ways.

And the last idea was to hold public competitions for new technologies - with government, and sometimes private companies, putting up suitable prizes. I think this is a great idea, not because I expect it suddenly to solve some of our major problems, but more because I think it would give publicity to some truly exciting and challenging issues for science and do a lot for public awareness of and interest in science. There are already quite large prizes on offer (up to $1 million) for anyone who can find solutions to some extremely arcane mathematical problems or conjectures - this might not sound relevant to new technologies, but who knows? After all, pure mathematics results in number theory from the 1930s turned out in the 1990s to be vital for modern coding and encryption systems, now in everyday use (e.g. for secure internet shopping). Of course, the government can never know what will turn out to be the key inventions and discoveries in any period, so if it offers prizes they might not be in the really vital new areas. But who cares? Let's get some money on the table, define a few prize projects, and see what ideas come up. We could all be amazed by the ingenuity that would soon be revealed.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Ambition and boys - Is there a problem?

In a fascinating and rather worrying article in last Sunday's Observer newspaper, Will Hutton discusses the 'problem' of boys - especially teenagers and young adults - in modern Britain. He notes, for instance 'a growing army of underperforming, unnecessarily idle and too often unemployed young men.' For a mix of reasons, not all well understood, many young men seem to lack ambition and motivation, and at the same time lack any fear of the consequences of doing nothing. They are quite ready to rely either on family support or on social security benefits to at least provide them with an acceptable living standard (albeit a fairly low one).

At the upper levels of the education system, these attitudes are reflected in graduate unemployment rates, with male rates rising faster than women's and now around 50% higher (17.2% as against 11.2% for women). And employers report that on average women graduates make better employees. They work harder both as students and when in a job, they try harder to find jobs, and they tend to hold onto jobs once they have found one. Young men seem more inclined to drift and move around rather aimlessly, often lacking the focus and discipline needed to do well in the work environment.

So what is going on here, and how concerned should we be? Will Hutton points out quite rightly that merely offering more 'opportunities' to young people will not make much difference, unless we can understand and address the underlying issue of individual motivation. Are boys really more afraid to fail, and therefore they choose not to pursue risky or demanding activities, whereas girls respond by working harder and end up doing better? And are boys really more bamboozled by the celebrity culture than girls, seeing the high earnings of sports stars and media celebrities and thinking to themselves that a normal life of working hard for modest rewards is just not worthwhile? I'm not sure about these explanations, personally, and suspect that a lot more is going on here that we don't yet understand too well.

In the university context, which is the setting I know best, it's actually quite hard to generalise in the way the above observations would suggest. Having been mentor and/or teacher to a wide range of male and female students over the years, it's difficult to pick out any useful generalisations at all. Both male and female students sometimes lack motivation, for instance, and in a very small number of cases I have even advised students to leave the university and get a job - sometimes, such advice has been taken and the students concerned have gone on to do well after finally discovering what they really want to do.

Some students - of both sexes - have big difficulties adapting to the fact the university is not just a more advanced sort of school, and that to succeed at university requires a good deal of self discipline and inner motivation. We don't spoon-feed our students, and nor should we, though increasingly students (and occasionally their parents) expect us to do so, in the sense that they expect the university to provide a lot more support and guidance than we used to do. Mostly, this doesn't seem to me a very healthy trend - but more on this theme in a later posting.

When it comes to finding jobs, or planning further study, my experience in recent years is that female students have been enormously more energetic and diligent in pursuing these options then most of the male students I have known - this is reflected in the number of references I am asked to write for male and female students. Eventually, virtually everyone who completes their course and graduates does find a job or embarks on further study, so in the end male-female differences are less marked in terms of outcomes than one might have expected from the relative efforts they put into the job-seeking process.

But why are there any male-female differences at all nowadays? After all, everyone supposedly has the same opportunities, the same chances to develop, progress, and succeed. Intellectually, there's nothing much to choose between male and female students, with a fairly wide range of abilities to be found in both sexes. There is a more noticeable difference, however, in terms of the social skills possessed by each sex, and this is most marked in students from the UK, especially from Scotland. Specifically - and I know it's dangerous to generalise - it often seems to be the case that Scottish female students are more self confident, more outgoing, more articulate, than many of their male counterparts. They are also often better motivated to work hard at university.

On the other hand, such differences are far less noticeable amongst our overseas students. Here, though, one has to be careful, as our typical overseas student is probably brighter, more outgoing, more confident than the average student from his or her home country; they need to be, simply to have the nerve and the motivation to study abroad.

So for some of the male (and far fewer of the female) Scottish students, we are left with a puzzle. What happens before they come to university - either in their schooling, or in their family lives - to undermine their confidence, to make them inarticulate and shy, to an extent that they struggle and under-perform at university?

One possibility is simply that society's expectations of men have changed so much in the past generation. It used to be the norm for the 'man' in a family to be the chief earner, with women either not working at all outside the home, or only part-time and with earnings that were usually at most a small share of family income. This gave men a highly responsible position and status in society, and must have helped to motivate them to gain qualifications, to work hard, to advance themselves, etc. Social change, notably massive - and long overdue - improvements in the position of women in the labour force, has left men without such a clear, distinctive role in society. Interestingly, many women still see themselves as striving to overcome the last remnants of former barriers to their progress, and hence they work hard and are frequently very ambitious. But what does society expect of men nowadays? It seems not very much, or certainly nothing that offers much responsibility or status. Can this be part of the explanation for men under-performing and lacking ambition? And if so, what can we do about it? Here I cannot wave a magic wand and offer a great new solution, but it does seem that there are some important issues here that need more research. For a new generation of under-performing, unemployed and idle (young) men is not an appealing prospect!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Great universities - What are they and how do we create them?

Some would probably say that to get a great university, what you need is a Royal Charter followed by four-hundred years of history. However, it's not that simple and many tremendously successful universities around the world have developed to their present greatness without the benefit of such a background. However, my interest in this question, 'what makes a university great?', was reawakened by two articles in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) plus my recent reading of a book on The Great American University (Jonathan R. Cole, published by Public Affairs, New York, 2009).

The THE articles were fascinating. According to Philip Altbach who directs the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, as regards creating a great university 'everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one'. In his search to discover what makes a university great, Graeme Harper, chair of Creative Universities and Professor at Bangor University, has spent a decade visiting universities all over the world. He has found elements of greatness in many institutions - linked to their ideals, the creation and re-creation of knowledge, an obsession with world class research, and often less tangible things such as the layout and design of their buildings, and their relationships with local communities. It's all very complicated!

In contrast, Jonathan Cole, author of The Great American University, thinks he has found an answer. However, his focus is mostly on the modern American research university, a specific and fairly recent type of institution, astonishingly effective in the production and transmission of knowledge, and responsible - directly or indirectly - for many of the discoveries and innovations that make our early 21st century lives what they are. For Cole, a great university is characterised by a distinct set of core values underpinning thirteen key ingredients. The values have to do with freedom of inquiry, academic freedom, the open communication of ideas, the creation of new knowledge (and hence a remarkable openness to new ideas), the vitality of the academic community, and so on.

To many academics, I imagine such values might seem quite mundane and unremarkable - but they are actually quite rare, both historically and geographically. Thus numerous universities now highly regarded and espousing many of these values have experienced restrictions on their studies, and on the freedom of expression of new ideas, in their past. And many universities even today still have to live with such restrictions, imposed for political, religious and ideological reasons. This is one reason why there are no truly great universities in some large regions of our world.

The thirteen key ingredients identified by Cole are as follows (pp110-116):

1. Faculty research productivity
2. Quality and impact of research
3. Grant and contract support
4. Honorific awards
5. Access to highly qualified students
6. Excellence in teaching
7. Physical facilities and advanced information technologies
8. Large endowments and plentiful resources
9. Large academic departments
10. Free inquiry and academic freedom
11. Location
12. Contribution to the public good
13. Excellent leadership

Given this list - which might look a bit different over here in Europe, and with which one can easily quibble over some of the details - how would we proceed to build a new 'great university'? My reading of Cole's book suggests that points 1 and 2 in the above list are absolutely critical. In other words, we would first assemble a group of leading and highly productive academics in selected fields, fund them for a few years, say 5-10 years initially, don't tell them what to do, and wait to see what they create. If they are really good, they will quickly start to attract funding for research and facilities, and to attract good students, especially if they have chosen an attractive location. However, don't expect quick results. For although one might not require the 400 years I mentioned at the start of this post, I do think it would be exceptionally hard to create a great university in less than a few decades.