Friday, 30 April 2010

Modernising universities - The new management-speak

Universities are definitely edging into the 21st century, and one of the signs is that they're adopting management-speak of the sort that has been prevalent in the commercial world already for a decade or two. This means both an upsurge of horrible acronyms, and the misuse of key words. For today, I'll just give one example of each of these.

On acronyms, not so long ago my heart sank when I received an e-mail asking me to prepare my FJP as part of the PDR process. I struggled briefly to figure out what I was being asked to do, and eventually realised that it was all part of our wonderful new Performance and Development Review (hence PDR) process under which staff performance in relation to their agreed targets would be reviewed annually. In principle it's not a terrible idea to review periodically what academic (and indeed other) staff are doing and assess how well they are working, and in business this happens all the time - it influences promotion, bonuses, and even whether someone gets to keep their job. But UK universities have traditionally been softer places than business, with poor performance rarely (and then usually very belatedly) penalised, and exceptional performance rarely rewarded much. But perhaps all that is starting to change with this new system. We shall see.

The FJP that we had to prepare, and agree with our line manager (head of section, head of School, or whoever), was our Forward Job Plan, in other words a list of our principal activities over the coming year broken down by teaching, research, administration and other (to pick up anything else we might be doing), and under each heading targets were set. Some targets make good sense, in my view, others less so, but the whole approach suffers from a problem I raised in a previous post, namely that academics often find themselves doing lots of things that don't readily fit into a framework of pre-agreed targets. For example in the last fortnight I've refereed two papers for journals and sent a colleague in another institution comments on the preliminary version of a paper; but none of this would typically appear in our FJP targets. Does that mean we should no longer bother to do such things? Surely not.

I'm not a big fan of detailed target setting for academics anyway, as I rather fear that the PDR/FJP process can easily become a form-filling exercise that merely serves as a substitute for the good management of academic staff. And don't misunderstand me here. I do think that academic (and other) staff sometimes need to be managed to get them to perform at the right level (and to identify any problems preventing them from doing so), but these formalised processes are not necessarily the best way of achieving that end.

Now to words. My chosen misused word is 'excellence'. It is most widely used now in connection with research, where we have - or will have when its contours are fully developed and agreed - the Research Excellence Framework, or REF. Of course, no one can really be against excellence, whether in research or anywhere else in life, but the use of the word to characterise the next round of research assessment (in 2013 or 2014, we suppose) seems to me a dreadful choice. After all, if we're assessing or evaluating something, surely our starting point should be as objective and neutral as possible, whereas the use of the word 'excellence' is heavily value-laden right away. I think we should reserve the word 'excellence' to refer to research that truly belongs in such a category, rather than for the whole evaluation framework.

Actually, the old term we used, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), was exactly right. As far as I can judge it was only abandoned because our funding bodies, and relevant govenment ministers concluded that the old-style-RAE had had its day, passed its 'sell-by date', or whatever, and to mark the evolution of a new type of exercise a new name had to be found. Hence the REF. But as the debate on this unfolds, it's less and less clear that it will turn out to be much different from the tried and tested RAE - but much more on that in a later post.

In any event, you can see what I mean. Our universities are definitely getting more modern, with ever more acronyms and management-speak. It's all good fun, I suppose.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

University funding - Research

UK universities all receive public funding from the various funding councils to support their teaching and research, as well as to promote a variety of other activities (such as measures to improve access; knowledge transfer; etc.). The teaching grant largely depends on approved student numbers and their subject mix, while the research grant (generally referred to as the QR funding stream) depends on the results of the most recent Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), specifically RAE2008 at the moment. In addition, of course, individuals and groups seek project-based funding from a wide variety of sources to support their research, so total funding for research is much larger than the QR stream alone.

In Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) distributes QR funding to all the institutions that it funds, but there is also another channel for distributing research funds in Scotland; this is called research pooling. The idea is to encourage researchers in different Scottish universities to work together to form research partnerships or alliances, and such schemes have been developed in several subject areas - physics, chemistry, mathematics, economics, and a few others - with each involving a different grouping of institutional partners. Once SFC approves a particular subject-based scheme, it provides funding - usually over five years - to support new academic posts, network co-ordination and management, conferences and workshops, and so on. The aim is to give Scottish research a big boost by achieving critical mass in key research areas, bringing in new highly productive researchers, and where relevant, by building links with policy-makers and the business community. Put like this, it sounds a great idea. But is it really so wonderful?

A few years ago, when the idea of research pooling was first advanced, SFC issued a consultation paper on the subject. Strictly in my personal capacity (i.e. not as a spokesman for my university), I wrote to argue against the proposed policy. I made several points, of which the two key ones were these: (a) there is not much evidence to suggest that large research groups are more productive than small ones (except in a few cases where big equipment needs arise); and (b) even if partnerships were a great idea, it wasn't obvious to me that the best partners would necessarily be other Scottish universities. However, I clearly lost the argument, since the research pooling policy was adopted. At that stage, I naturally supported my own university's efforts to form research partnerships and hence do well from this funding opportunity. After all, once it has been decided what 'game' is to be played, it makes sense for each institution to play it as well as it can.

However, there is another important point here, based on the natural question, where does the money for research pooling come from? To my knowledge, the Scottish government did not increase its allocation to SFC to promote research pooling, so the money must have come from elsewhere in the existing budget. I presume, therefore, that the QR funding stream was top-sliced in some way to provide the money. What this means, though, is that research pooling does not represent any additional research money going into the Scottish universities, but rather a redistribution of funds that would have been paid out anyway. So to convince ourselves that research pooling is a good way of allocating a chunk of research money to Scottish universities, we must have a strong suspicion that merely allocating more through the established QR mechanism would have been less productive in terms of the likely research outcomes. But what reason do we have for believing that? Personally, I'm still struggling to make sense of all this.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Examining a PhD - Collegiate versus commercial models

Having examined dozens of PhD theses in many different universities, I had a surprising experience late last year. I was asked to examine a fairly technical economics PhD at another UK university - which will remain nameless to avoid any additional embarrassment. The thesis itself was pretty good, and the internal examiner was extremely thorough. In the end, after the formal viva, we agreed a few minor changes and corrections, and quite soon I heard that the student had done what was required and the thesis was approved. So far so good.

However, the overall examination process was not quite what I had expected, in that the department made no effort to look after me in the way departments normally do, e.g. by providing opportunities to meet other staff, renewing old acquaintances, and the like. My wife thought I was just complaining about the absence of a nice lunch - partly true but not wholly fair. So why was I making such a big deal out of this?

Well, as many of you will understand, examining a PhD is one of the many things we do that both consumes a lot of time (easily 2-3 days per PhD) and is hardly rewarded at all - in this case I was offered the minimal fee of just over £100. Thus such examining is part of what I have described before as the collegial aspect of university life; and it seems to me that when you're doing a favour for another institution, they should look after you properly. As I see it, this is part of the 'implicit contract'. The alternative is to examine a PhD as a commercial activity, where you simply do a piece of work for a fee with no expectation of any personal contact with the department concerned. But in that case, a more reasonable fee might have been around £1000. Thus the institution referred to above seemed to me to be operating a commercial model of the examination process, but they were doing so very much 'on the cheap'.

As soon as the viva was over, therefore, I wrote to the relevant Vice-Principal at the university in question to complain about the casual manner in which I had been treated, and sketching out some of the above points. After a short investigation, I was pleased to receive a comprehensive apology, and an assurance that external examiners would be much better treated in future. I have since also met some members of the department who took the opportunity to apologise individually. So all ended well.

This experience does, though, highlight an important issue. Much of what academics do, both for their own institution and for others, relies on goodwill and a continuing support for collegiate ideals of how universities ought to function. But this goodwill can be undermined in many ways - both by individual incentives and performance indicators that might oblige academics to prioritise their time differently from in the past; and, as in this example, by a basic lack of courtesy, kindness and appreciation of what we do. Yet I rather doubt whether many of us really want move to a purely commercial model for the provision of extra-institutional services, and I also doubt whether our institutions would like to pay the resulting high fees!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Formal and informal training: Learning to be a university teacher

People in the ‘training industry’ often like to give the impression that in the past, before UK university teachers had to follow a comprehensive two-year training programme culminating in a Postgraduate Certificate of Academic Practice (PGCAP), university staff were entirely untrained. In other words, the absence of a formal training programme and the accompanying certification were taken to mean that we were largely untrained. Lurking in the background was the inference that we were probably rather amateurish in our approach to academic work, especially our teaching, and quite possibly rather incompetent.

Personally, I have always found this line of thinking completely nonsensical, sometimes to the point of finding it downright offensive. Let me try to explain how I see the situation.

First, some personal experience. When I joined Stirling University back in 1972, the idea that a little formal training for academic staff might be useful was just catching on, and Stirling was quick to adopt the idea. Accordingly, soon after starting work there I spent an entire morning being trained! We actually managed to do three things. We started with a one-hour lecture on ‘The Lecture’ - not a stunning performance it must be said, but not dreadful either, and there were some useful pointers, some basic ‘dos and don’ts’. Then we had another one-hour lecture, this time on ‘The Seminar’, about which I can recall virtually nothing. Last, each of us in the group being trained had to deliver a five-minute talk that was video-taped, the idea being that we would look at the recording and hence identify the presentational weaknesses that we needed to work on. In my case, I was told that my presentation was OK, but I never got around to viewing the recording.

That completed my formal training while at Stirling. But it certainly didn’t complete my training. For there was a huge amount to learn from more experienced colleagues about course design, planning teaching, assessment, advising/mentoring students, and diverse other topics. The collegiate nature of an academic department meant, among other things, that people were willing to help each other, and few were so self confident or so arrogant that they felt no need for such mutual support. We learned about assessment by doing it with a more senior colleague, for instance, and we were encouraged to improve our teaching by sitting in on colleagues’ lectures from time to time. A bit more daunting, senior colleagues would occasionally sit in on my own lectures to check that I was doing a reasonable job. In these ways, a great deal of informal, on-the-job training took place, and no doubt still does. We were able to learn how to be pretty decent university teachers, and how to look after our students, with a bare minimum of formal training.

Since my Stirling days, I have been on lots of training sessions at Heriot-Watt University, mostly half-day sessions, sometimes full days or even longer, covering a huge range of topics that we never had to think about when I entered the profession. This included training in various aspects of discrimination, data protection, research funding and planning, procedures for appointing new staff, etc.; and, at the more senior level, training in how to manage a department and a departmental budget, and how to handle disciplinary cases. Quite a bit of this, I would say, was moderately useful, though I occasionally got into trouble when I suggested that trainers might take the view that academic staff were fairly intelligent and that we could read quite well, so that our sessions could have been much shorter and better focussed. However, I suspect that trainers are rewarded according to the ‘hours of training’ they provide, so the incentives to promote more efficient training are not really in place.

Easily the most exciting and memorable training I ever did was a session on putting out fires, while I was still at Stirling University. We were taught how to use different types of fire extinguisher, and even started a small fire in one of the courtyards so we could practice putting it out. Amazingly, we managed not to burn down the University - but I rather fear that health and safety rules would nowadays prohibit such imaginative and ‘fun’ training.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

What do academics do?

This is something my neighbours probably wonder about, and my mother certainly does! And it's quite tricky to answer, because we do so many different things.

Our contracts don't help much here, as they are usually pretty vague. Our job description is usually no more than a line or two, stating which department we are in and that we shall do whatever work is agreed with our line manager. It doesn't always even mention teaching or research, so I suppose in extremis we could be asked to do the gardening or clean the corridors.....I'd better not pursue this line of thinking, though.

More seriously, the presumption is that our main activities are teaching students and doing research, together with whatever administrative tasks are needed to fulfil these duties. When I first came into academia in the early 1970s, this was all taken for granted, and there were no targets, performance indicators, and the like to guide us; nor was there any teaching assessment (either by students or externally run) or research assessment. Nowadays, of course, life is more complicated. As in many other areas of life, academics are no longer trusted - either by their institutions or by the wider community - to be competent professionals who will simply get on with the job if left in peace. So we do have targets and regular monitoring of what we do, and these serve both to make sure we don't idle around too much, and to influence promotion and other rewards.

On the face of it this all sounds eminently sensible, and some might say long overdue. But the key problem with targets is that they inevitably pick out bits of a job that are readily measurable, and miss out the less tangible, more qualitative aspects. For an academic, that means I can be told how many hours to teach, and perhaps even set a target of how many papers to write in a given year. But it's hard to make me deliver quality unless I have the inner motivation to do so, and even worse, focussing on such targets might make me neglect other important parts of the job that can't be summed up in a few targets.

The point is that academics are not only employees of a given institution, but part of a wider academic community - usually based around our individual subject areas - within which very strong values of collegiality are still very important. This wider context leads us to do all sorts of things for which we receive zero or minimal reward, for instance: reviewing research grant applications, external examining, refereeing papers, reviewing book proposals for publishers, writing book reviews, informally commenting on colleagues' papers before journal submission, and so on. It seems to me really important that we do these things, and do them well, but the institution-based performance indicators that increasingly influence what people do offer no encouragement whatsoever. I think this is a great pity.

I'm not sure what my mother would make of the above remarks, but I hope that some of my academic colleagues will find that they strike a chord.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Research can be tough........

To lighten the tone of the previous post, here are a couple of pictures from a research visit to Kazakhstan a few years back - our team was running a couple of workshops in Almaty and the capital, Astana; and a training workshop at the Ministry of Economy in Astana. The first picture shows our group (I'm the one with the fur hat) meeting for lunch in the mountains just south of Almaty, to make plans for our various meetings that week. At least, that's what we told ourselves......

The second picture shows two of our group - Richard and Sergei - in Astana, walking across the frozen river as we went between a couple of our meetings in the city. The temperature then must have been around -15 degrees C., so we kept walking quite rapidly to stay warm. Some of the local vodka and the 'interesting' food also helped to warm us up after our various meetings.

Election 2010 - What the three main Parties say about Universities

It's hard to make this very exciting, but it might be of interest to see what the Party manifestos are saying about the universities, and about higher education in general. So here goes.

Conservative Party (Manifesto, p.17)
Universities contribute enormously to the economy. But not all of this contribution comes directly – it can come from fundamental research with no immediate application – and universities also have a crucial cultural role. We will ensure that Britain’s universities enjoy the freedom to pursue academic excellence and focus on raising the quality of the student experience. To enable this to happen, we will:

• delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it can be reviewed – because of doubts about whether there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research;
• consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding, so that we can unlock the potential of universities to transform our economy, to enrich students’ lives through teaching of the highest quality, and to advance scholarship; and,
• provide 10,000 extra university places this year, paid for by giving graduates incentives to pay back their student loans early on an entirely voluntary basis.

Labour Party (Manifesto, chapter 3, p.7)
Higher education is fundamental to our national prosperity. Demand for high-level skills is strong and growing, and the supply of good graduates is an increasingly important factor in global economic competition. We have eliminated up-front fees paid by parents and students, and ensured that the repayment of loans is related to ability to pay. The higher education participation rate for young people from the most disadvantaged areas has increased every year since 2004.

The review of higher education funding chaired by Lord Browne will report later this year. Our aim is to continue the expansion of higher education, widening access still further, while ensuring that universities and colleges have a secure, long-term funding base that protects world-class standards in teaching and research. Ahead of the review, we have provided universities with funding to recruit an extra 20,000 students this year.

Universities must continue to raise their game in outreach to state schools, widening participation and boosting social mobility. We will guarantee mentoring and support for higher education applications to all low-income pupils with the potential for university study, with extra summer schools and help with UCAS applications; and expand programmes to encourage highly able students from low-income backgrounds to attend Russell Group universities. We support universities that already widen access by taking into account the context of applicants’ achievement at school.

In the coming years, priority in the expansion of student places will be given to Foundation Degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, as well as applied study in key economic growth sectors. The choices and views of students should play an important part in shaping courses and teaching. All universities will be required clearly to set out how they will ensure a high-quality learning experience for students.

Liberal Democrats (Manifesto, pp39-40)
Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.
• Reform current bursary schemes to create a National Bursary Scheme for students, so that each university gets a bursary budget suited to the needs of its students. These bursaries would be awarded both on the basis of studying strategic subjects (such as sciences and mathematics) and financial hardship.
• Replace wasteful quangos (the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England) with a single Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education.
• Scrap the arbitrary target of 50 per cent of young people attending university, focussing effort instead on a balance of college education, vocational training and apprenticeships.
• Start discussions with universities and schools about the design of a trial scheme whereby the best students from the lowest achieving schools are guaranteed a place in Higher Education.
• As part of our immediate job creation package, fund 15,000 new places on Foundation Degree courses and fully fund the off-the-job costs of adult apprenticeships, which currently have to be met by employers, for one year.

• Better target spending on adult skills. We will end Train to Gain funding for large companies, restricting the funds to the small and medium-sized fi rms that need the support. The money saved will be used to cover the course fees for adults taking a fi rst Level 3 qualification (such as A-levels or an adult apprenticeship), allowing a significant reduction in the overall budget.

All of the above gives lots of food for thought, and I shall come back to some of these issues in subsequent posts.