Thursday, 30 September 2010

Evaluating research – Hungary

Hungary is easily my favourite country in Eastern Europe, and Budapest my favourite city, in both cases probably because I have been so often, know the place well, and have many good friends and colleagues there. So a few months ago, I was delighted when the Hungarian Academy of Sciences invited me to join a new committee they were setting up, namely the External Advisory Board (EAB) for the Academy’s Institute of Economics. Like many things that academics do, this is not a paid position, but the Institute does cover the expenses to get me out to Budapest for meetings. And the first meeting of the EAB took place in Budapest earlier this week.

Accommodation was arranged for me at a guest-house of the Academy, located in the old Castle District of the city, though when we got to the designated address my taxi driver didn’t believe it could be right, as it looked like an ordinary house or apartment building, albeit dating from the 18th century. Luckily, a tiny sign beside the imposing solid wooden door read, ‘MTA Vendégház’, confirming that we were at the right place. Once inside, the welcome was friendly, facilities were fine, and all was well.

Next day our EAB meeting took place at the building that houses the Institute of Economics, a truly horrible concrete edifice whose sole redeeming feature is that once inside, it affords – at least when looking west – lovely views of the southern end of the Buda Hills. We were there to assess the Institute’s annual report for 2009 and to offer advice on its research strategy, but naturally I cannot comment on such things here since our formal business is confidential between the Academy, the EAB itself, and the Institute. However, I can say that the quality of the Institute’s work, and its leading researchers, bears no relation to the quality of their building; they do lots of quite outstanding research and many researchers at the institute have well established international profiles. Given that, it is always a pleasure to visit the Institute, and it was nice, while there, to encounter several researchers I know well from previous visits.

Just like universities in the UK, the Institute faces severe funding pressures these days, and this is forcing it to diversify into more ‘commercial’ types of research and research-related service provision simply to balance the budget. I imagine that some researchers, who are used to the more old fashioned, traditional model whereby they could spend a lot of time ‘sitting and thinking’, must find such trends quite uncomfortable and unwelcome. But again, just as with us, funding pressures are not going to go away, and we all have to find ways to live with them.

What about Budapest itself? As ever, it is a lively city, with lots of tourists still wandering around, both individually and in orderly groups. Some older buildings, such as the main cathedral on the Castle District, are undergoing restoration, and some major construction projects are also on going, notably the fourth metro line, Metro 4. Otherwise, everything seems as normal, except for one surprise when I went down to Moscow Square, a major public transport hub (metro, buses and trams all link up there). For I discovered that my favourite tram-line, the number 56, no longer exists! This is the tram I’ve taken for decades when going out to the Buda Hills – it went all the way out to a little place called Hüvösvölgy towards the northern end of the Hills. Although on this trip I had no time, sadly, to visit the Hills, I was relieved to see that the route of another tram, the number 61, has been extended to go out there. So next time…….

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Open learning and new technology

According to the latest higher education conference (September, 2010) held at the OECD, Paris, the traditional university is coming under threat from the new challenges posed by open learning and new technology. Supposedly, the entire 'structure of the modern university' is facing a massive challenge, and we are apparently far too preoccupied with our more immediate funding worries to pay any attention. But I do wonder whether this apocalyptic vision of the university sector is quite right, and speaking personally, and more positively, I actually think that the traditional model of the university still has a lot going for it. It's perfectly true that we shouldn't go on doing something just because it's 'what we've always done', but in the case of higher education it does seem to me that how we do things does in important ways accord well with modern theories of learning.

So what about all this wonderful new technology, what can this do for us? By technology, of course, people mean the internet and modern IT facilities; and for sure they already make a massive difference in universities, not so much in what we do but in how we deliver our teaching. Thus even the most traditional of courses will have most teaching material on line, together with follow up exercises, essay questions, past examination papers and other useful resources. Indeed most of our students take such provision for granted these days, not unreasonably. Mostly the material we teach is made available on the university intranet, specifically on our virtual learning environment (VLE), rather than being posted for completely open access. What this means is that within the framework of a very traditional structure of university degree programmes, the most modern of IT services are now widely used to enhance our teaching, and hopefully to enhance the teaching experience as perceived by our students.

Such an application of modern IT facilities, however, in no way detracts from the fact that we still operate with quite a traditional model of the university - as a community of scholars. Thus although we make heavy use of IT, we still think that our students need to talk to each other and with members of academic staff. I suspect that only quite a small fraction of our students could manage successfully without the support and structure provided by our standard degree programmes. We don't just see our students as individual learners, but as part of a learning community. For most, this is vital.

For more mature students, including some of those who are very sure what they want to do and who are strongly self motivated, open learning is probably an attractive alternative to the traditional university; and the numbers of such students will undoubtedly rise as more and more people seek flexible approaches to study and learning. Fine. But that is surely a far cry from the claim that the traditional university has pretty much had its day.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Signs of intelligent life in Scotland!

At last, the so far very muted debate on higher education funding in Scotland is starting to get interesting, stimulated by an article in today's Scotsman newspaper by Lord Sutherland, former Principal of Edinburgh University.

Until today, all we've heard has been the refrain, 'no fees for Scottish students', coming from the Scottish Government, with a few recent hints that funding pressures might lead to some form of graduate tax. Deep down, when they think about it, everyone can see that a continuation of the current 'no fees' policy is just nonsense, and in an era of tough spending cuts it will not prove sustainable - unless we are seriously willing to contemplate the closure quite soon of some major Scottish higher education institutions. However, I don't see that that is currently on anyone's agenda, though I would not be greatly surprised if the next few years gave rise to institutional mergers here and there.

As for the graduate tax idea, touted about both in England, and to a lesser extent up here in Scotland, that, too, should be rejected outright. For a start, it takes a while for payments of graduate tax to build up to meaningful sums, so institutions needing more cash now will be disappointed. Also, there are unresolved issues over who should pay such a tax, for how long, and on what terms. For instance, should the tax just go with the status of being a graduate, or would the payment depend on the subject studied, the class of degree, the university attended, or any other such readily observable indicators? We don't yet know any of this. Moreover, unless such a tax were introduced for the whole of the UK, Scottish students might evade it by simply moving south. Administrative aspects of a graduate tax also seem quite tricky, I think, though I daresay we could make it work if we were sufficiently determined. However, in the UK, as I noted in an earlier post, we don't normally collect taxes for a specific purpose, such as higher education, so how could we ever know that all the tax collected as graduate tax was truly passed on to the universities? And who would decide how much each institution got?

A further complication has to do with EU rules. As these stand at present, member states are allowed to discriminate within the state, but not at all between states. Thus if Scotland chose to operate, say, a graduate tax for Scottish-domiciled students, it could still choose to charge fees to English students. However, it could not legally charge fees to students from other EU member states, as they would have to get the same deal as Scottish students. But then how could we collect the tax from, say, a Latvian student? So in effect, Scotland could end up providing virtually free higher education to students from other EU member states. Not a great idea, surely?

And this is why Lord Sutherland's ideas come across as so refreshing. For he cuts through all the verbiage clouding the current Scottish 'debate' and comes right to the point, arguing for fees to be determined course-by-course by each institution, with no arbitrarily imposed cap. This is absolutely the right way to go. Contrary to popular opinion, evidence from various countries (e.g. Australia, the US) shows that fees have little impact on HE participation by disadvantaged groups. Other arguments often raised against fees are also not too hard to dispose of. Thus there is no need, in a well designed scheme, for fees to be paid up front, but universities can still get their money early by using the private financial markets - through bond issues and the like. There is no need to boost public sector indebtedness. Likewise, what students pay back can be made income-contingent, just as in the present very sensible English scheme.

With luck, therefore, Lord Sutherland's article plus the Scotsman's supportive editorial comment will give rise to a more intelligent debate about university funding in Scotland than we have witnessed to date.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Managing academic staff

It has always seemed to me that managing academic staff and getting the best/most work out of them must be a totally thankless task. After all, why become an academic if you’re happy to have someone telling you what to do? The whole attraction – for me, at least, and I think for many of my generation – is that being an academic working in a university meant that aside from the basic teaching duties that everyone had to do, no one really hassled you about anything else. Hence it was possible to get on with doing research on anything that took your fancy, however obscure. If that just involved reading, thinking and writing, it didn’t even cost anything; and if it involved collecting data, interviewing people, and travel, then you could always apply for a research grant to do what you wanted. Either way, no one told you what to do. And where else could you get a job that offered such remarkable freedom?

But nowadays, a variety of fairly dire management practices have been creeping into our universities and spreading their tentacles far and wide. I’m quite sure, from talking to colleagues elsewhere, that my own institution, Heriot-Watt University, is neither better nor worse than many other places, but since it’s the place I know best it’s the one I report on here.

Now, in an earlier post I did mention some of the bizarre management-speak that has already reached us, with our PDR system (Performance and Development Review) set up to monitor staff performance through setting targets periodically and then reviewing their fulfilment via interviews with line managers. I suppose these systems are not fundamentally bad, but they are quite costly in terms of staff time and effort – filling in the necessary forms, participating in interviews, and so on. So for me, such systems can therefore only be justified economically if it can be shown that they give rise to marked and measurable improvements in overall academic staff performance (sufficient to justify the costs of operating the systems). Unfortunately, I’m aware of no solid evidence to demonstrate this.

The latest notion, circulated to all staff this week, is the idea that we should be thinking in terms of Performance Excellence (yes, capitalised – but I have no idea, as yet, what it’s supposed to mean), and there will even be Performance Excellence Expectations linked, apparently, to the Spirit of Heriot-Watt. It sounds pretty exciting stuff and I can hardly wait to find out whether it means anything of much relevance to what folk actually do in their jobs. Meanwhile, I’ll watch out for this mysterious spirit that might be lurking in the corridors….

This all makes me wonder, though, how we managed academic staff in the old days before these wonderful new management systems came along to ‘help’ us. The answer, I would have to admit, is generally ‘not very well.’ Given that, it’s easy to see why our top-level managers might imagine that introducing the new systems mentioned above ought to improve things, though personally I remain unconvinced that we are moving in the right direction. Let me explain.

Just over a decade ago, I was for about two and a half years the first head of our newly formed School of Management (expanded in 2002 to the School of Management and Languages, or SML). It would not be inaccurate to say that the three departments coming together back then were a bit reluctant, and not many people were really all that enthusiastic about the new venture. But no matter, it happened, and we made it work. More relevant to this post, when I was first appointed a surprising number of my colleagues would stop me in the corridor and say things like ‘right, now you can sort out X’, X being a colleague widely regarded as extremely lazy and unproductive. And the same X was drawn to my attention by many different people.

So how did I deal with this reported ‘problem’. First, I looked in X’s personnel file and found precisely nothing. In other words, not a single complaint about X had found its way into his file, neither from students nor from colleagues. Second, I sought advice from the university’s then HR director about how to proceed, and was advised that if I was minded to discipline anyone in any way at all, I would need to assemble extensive paperwork documenting the person’s alleged misdemeanours and shortcomings. Third, I duly followed the HR advice over a period of several months and did indeed assemble quite a pile of paper reporting things like unexplained absences, missed teaching, unavailability to students, failure to complete assigned administrative tasks, and so on. I also held some informal discussions with the person concerned to draw his attention to various issues about his work. Fourth, I took the pile of paper back to HR and asked how I could proceed in regard to initiating disciplinary action against X. They told me in no uncertain terms that I had nothing like enough paper to support my case, and that I could take no action. At that point, I concluded that I had better things to do with my life, and abandoned the venture in disgust. A year or two later, X was awarded a rather generous early retirement deal by the university, which disgusted me even more. But at least he was finally out of the system.

But what a shockingly bad way to manage academic staff. Did no one think what a terrible message this conveyed to other staff, namely that nothing all that terrible would happen even if you chose to be bone idle. Appalling! Or perhaps at that time our HR people just wanted a quiet life and didn’t want any trouble from the unions, etc. I don’t know for sure, though I have my suspicions. And I do wonder whether our HR people now are any tougher than they used to be then. I certainly hope they are rather more robust these days.

While this discussion has indicated how bad we were at dealing with underperforming staff, I’m afraid we have not been notably better at rewarding exceptionally good performance. True, sometimes a junior academic might gain promotion relatively early, or might occasionally be awarded a merit increment or two. So rewards for these staff have not been uniformly zero, but they have generally been very small. Likewise for senior staff, those already at the professorial level, there is provision for either salary increases and/or merit awards, the latter being tiny bonuses – in my own case I have never received a bonus that exceeded 3% of my basic annual salary (which might mean, of course, that I was never especially deserving, though at times I was told that I had done exceptionally well). Luckily, productive academics are not motivated solely by financial rewards, for if we were the university would never elicit good performance from any of us.

Overall, therefore, universities seem to have a very strange reward system in which there is usually no penalty for the most blatant of underperformance, and at best a modest reward for outstanding performance. Given this, it’s amazing that most people work as well and as hard as they do! Now, how do we expect our PDR system and its new variants to change any of this? It’s not clear to me that it’s really offering more reward to those who do well, except perhaps a few kind words from the Head of School – and I must admit that such personal recognition is sometimes appreciated. And how will the PDR system affect those who work less hard and deliver much less? I suspect very little. For all those in the middle, already working quite well, it will surely just be an unwelcome additional burden, with little impact on what they actually do. This curious mix of weak financial incentives and an over-bureaucratic PDR system is surely not the best staff management framework we can come up with.

After thinking about all this, I’m almost tempted to open a management textbook to see what pearls of wisdom I might uncover there!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

And now for the video……

Just to explain a bit more what we do at our Dubai campus, take a look at this YouTube video clip showing Michael Clarke, our Head of Management in Dubai, being interviewed recently. The clip is added to my blog with his permission.


I meant to add this clip to my blog a couple of days ago, but unfortunately a tree fell down on the green in our little village and cut our phone connection – so no phone line, no internet connection. Impressively, our local council came along to cut up and remove the tree and this was all done by 10am the next morning; fixing the phones took somewhat longer, naturally. It’s amazing how cut off one suddenly feels, especially as not even my mobile phone works from home since we live in quite a deep valley and no signal reaches us here. Luckily, I’m not one of the most sociable of people and don’t really mind being incommunicado for a little while.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

More on Dubai

As I start writing this post, I’ve now completed four days’ teaching out here in sunny Dubai, but it turned out that the last day and a half were rather compressed, as my last day here has actually been declared to be a holiday. The first picture here shows a general view of the campus where the two buildings we use are located.

Having lost a day of my scheduled teaching time, I did my best to cover as much of the material as I could in the available time. This wasn’t ideal, but there wasn’t much option. As far as I could judge, the students coped well, and in any case I did leave them with copies of the teaching material I used, plus diverse references and web-links to enable them to follow up and consolidate what we covered. They can also e-mail me if they need further advice.

But why was a holiday suddenly announced? It was called to mark the end of Ramadan, the Eid holiday. But this is not a fixed date, and the month of Ramadan does not appear to have a fixed length either. To determine the ‘correct’ date for the start of the Eid holiday, the government establishes a very high-level moon-sighting committee to judge when the moon will attain exactly the right configuration. As soon as this committee makes its judgement and reports back, the date is then announced publicly. Civilian life then adjusts accordingly, and that includes shutting down the university at short notice. But that’s fine, it’s an important aspect of the culture out here, so naturally it must be respected.

The result, for me, is that I get an extra day to look around, and since I’ve never been here before, that’s not at all bad. My plan is to visit the Dubai Museum, take a look at the Creek and the old markets in that area, and then see what else I have time or inclination to do, bearing in mind the intense heat – so I probably won’t want to be out and about much in the middle of the day. And anyway, when it’s just too hot to be outdoors, I have various bits of work to catch up with, so the day certainly won’t be wasted. The second picture shows that I did get to the Museum, which was actually more interesting than I had been told.

Having done one short spell of teaching here, it seems that Heriot-Watt might want me to come out and do some more teaching to a larger postgraduate class, instead of the small undergraduate group I had this time. That could be a lot of fun – also a lot of work, naturally – so I’ll quite likely agree to come out in February. It’ll be cooler then, and walking around will be much pleasanter than it is right now. By then, too, there should be some significant progress with our new buildings, and that will be interesting to see.

After one short visit, how do I assess Dubai? Well, even though I’d seen lots of pictures before coming, nothing really prepares you for the scale of the place, and the rapid pace of change even during this recession. Similarly, though I’ve visited universities in many places, I’ve never been to one in the middle of a desert – definitely a novelty for me. On the other hand, until this week I’ve also never been anywhere near a desert without seeing a single camel. People tell me there are some wild camels in some places, so maybe next time…….. Last, just seeing this incredible place and reading a little about it while here makes me want to read lots more about this region of the Middle East, so when I come back I’ll hopefully have a better understanding of how it works.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Building castles in the sand…..

What an amazing place Dubai is, built from almost nothing in barely a couple of decades, with tall buildings, supposedly 7-star hotels, and incredible infrastructure. The latter includes 6-8 lane superhighways, and a newly finished extremely elegant looking metro system – only one line at present, more to come when the economy picks up speed again (sadly, this all makes the endless delays in Edinburgh’s little tram system seem extremely petty). And how did all this massive development in Dubai take place? Was it the result of cautious investors doing the sort of expected profit calculations we teach to our students? Surely not! Rather, someone had a vision, allied with the will to make it all happen and the ability to raise the needed finance. It’s all about what Keynes long ago, and quite rightly, termed the ‘animal spirits’ of investors.

So here I am, over here to spend a week teaching research methods to a small group of students at Heriot-Watt’s Dubai campus, part of the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). DIAC is located at the edge of Dubai city proper, and is mostly surrounded by desert – so very much a case of building castles in the sand. The first picture was taken from just outside one of our buildings, looking across the road.

The two buildings we use in DIAC are both more attractive and actually feel more solid than many of our buildings back home, interestingly. The second picture shows the one where I was doing my teaching. And our staff out here are unfailingly friendly and helpful, making for excellent conditions for the short-term visitor such as myself. True, it’s a bit warm, with outside temperatures in the low 40s Centigrade, but as I’m here to work that doesn’t really matter, as indoors everything is air conditioned. In any case, I don’t think this is a place I would especially want to visit as a tourist, though clearly lots of people wouldn’t agree with me. The tourism business here apparently does very well.

Becoming an advanced education hub for the Middle East is just one of Dubai’s ambitious goals, and a number of western universities have signed up to the concept and established facilities out here. It’s not an easy business, as students have to be recruited, good quality courses offered and run, and academic standards maintained. At the same time, costs obviously have to be kept down so the whole operation can be viable. Getting all this right is quite tough, but having been here several years already, Heriot-Watt seems to be managing. For our students out here, getting a good British degree still carries a certain cachet, and that definitely helps. So much so in fact, that we’ve just started work on some new buildings that will, in not much over a year, boost our capacity in Dubai to 4500 students. Indeed our own Principal was so enthusiastic about the whole thing that he recently came out here to operate a digger to get the construction properly under way. Perhaps even academics can experience just the same ‘animal spirits’ as other investors.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Does learning a foreign language matter?

In the olden days when I first went to university, I had to have an 'O'-level pass in Latin in order to be admitted. At the time, I don't recall thinking how unfair that was, or how onerous, for it was just a fact of life. So anyone wanting to go to Cambridge just got on and did it, without making a big deal of it. Nowadays, of course, not only is Latin no longer a requirement, nor is any foreign language qualification at all. Aside from language courses themselves, my understanding is that knowledge of and qualifications in a foreign language are no longer a requirement for entry to any UK university. This reflects the general view in the UK that learning languages is not, or is no longer, considered to be all that important, and decisions by education ministers a few years ago to make language learning no longer compulsory up to age 16 (GCSE stage).

But as lots of recent press correspondence indicates, many people do still think that language learning is important for young people in the UK, and I suspect that lots of them would like to see a foreign language becoming a compulsory part of the national curriculum once more. Indeed some have even proposed making a foreign language qualification a requirement for university entry. While I wouldn't necessarily go that far, there are some important issues here that need wider discussion and debate.

For a start, the attitude that 'languages don't matter' is surely bad for the UK's standing in the world and, more practically, its ability to do business effectively. Sure, we can always import people with language skills when we need them, and we already do so on a large scale. But what impression does it make on a German firm, say, if the people they meet when doing business with a UK firm are actually German nationals (with good English, naturally) hired by that firm; or even worse, if the people they meet just assume that 'everyone speaks English'? It's true that English has become a sort of lingua franca for doing business anywhere in the world, but even so it does seem rather arrogant to take that for granted and not bother learning the language of one's trading partners. In contrast, wherever I go in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, most reasonably well educated people regard learning two or three languages as the norm - language learning starts early, is frequently supplemented by private tuition, and standards are high.

Second, there are strong cultural arguments for learning a foreign language. Education is not just about picking up skills and knowledge that will be useful in the job market, though all too often it is presented that way nowadays. For in addition to such immediately practical matters, it is surely also about understanding our place in the world - geographically, historically, politically, culturally and so on; and about understanding how our world works - hence science, engineering, etc. Foreign languages fit into this broader picture of education because they provide access to the culture and history of other countries, through learning to read their literature, their newspapers, or whatever.

Not only that, but even a very modest knowledge of a foreign language enables one to function practically when visiting the country, and in many countries people are delighted when visitors take the trouble to use the local language - it helps to break down barriers, and to make new friends.

Third, I think there are also huge intellectual arguments for learning foreign languages, which I would sum up briefly as follows: (a) it's hard to get far with a foreign language without learning a good deal of grammar, and that can have enormously beneficial effects on the learner's ability to think and write in English; (b) a little like mathematics, foreign language learning necessarily involves discipline, logic and accuracy - you have to get things right, and can't get away with waffle and general chat as is apparently possible in some other subjects. So as mental training, learning a foreign language is an excellent vehicle. And (c) because learning a foreign language is perceived in the UK to be 'difficult', successfully doing so and achieving a good level has to have beneficial effects on the learner's self confidence, something that is invaluable when doing almost anything else in life that is difficult and demanding.

Overall, then, we are surely immensely foolish as a nation to have allowed foreign language learning to decline as badly as it has in recent years, and to have allowed the standard of what we do teach also to decline quite markedly. It's time we started reviving the teaching of modern languages, and the sooner the better.

As for me, although I did Latin at school (as well as French and German) and was quite good at it, I don't remember liking it very much at the time. However, there's no particular reason to think that school syllabuses should be designed to ensure that we should like everything we do, that's just silly, a bit naive - the 'fun' theory of education. But nowadays, when I visit Roman monuments and see old inscriptions, it's quite spine tingling to be able to have a bash at reading them - usually I can figure out about half of any given inscription, enough to get the gist; I can't remember enough Latin to manage better than that. But even to experience such a tenuous connection with our ancient civilization is pretty amazing, making all the drudgery of learning Latin in the first place more than worthwhile. So let's bring back Latin!