Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Who decides what topics we should research?

This is a simple question with a simple answer. The researcher should decide what topics he/she wishes to research. End of story!

However, the world we live in is not a simple place, with the result that my simple idealistic idea seems to work less and less well. As an example of this, the last few days have seen some highly entertaining squabbling in the press (Guardian Education and Times Higher Education, both in the last week) over claims that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has been heavily leaned on by the Government. Allegedly, in order to avoid massive cuts to its research budget (possibly as much as £100 million), AHRC has been 'persuaded' to designate research on the so called 'Big Society' - the Government's big idea - as one of their top priorities. Understandably, this has given rise to a great deal of sound and fury, with at least one leading academic resigning from the AHRC Council in protest.

In the past, there was supposedly a bit more separation between Government and researchers, in that while Government provided the funds, the Research Councils were able to select the projects to be funded without Government interference - this was the so called Haldane principle. To be fair, this never worked perfectly, but it probably helped to preserve researcher autonomy to have this arms-length principle in place. Now it seems to have been abandoned (the Government says 'modified').

In practice, despite the current controversy, real change on the ground may well be less than Ministers might like. Why is this?

First, lots of existing and prospective AHRC research may already fall under the 'Big Society' umbrella, or could easily do so with a little creative re-labelling. Likewise, people submitting applications for research funding can 'bend' what they propose to make it sound like 'Big Society' research, and everyone will be happy. The AHRC itself has stated that in discussing research with Government it is important to use 'language that policymakers understand', and their use of the Government's terminology is in line with that viewpoint.

Second, it seems to me that neither Government nor AHRC nor the researcher community really has the faintest idea what 'Big Society' research ought to look like, or even what the term itself actually means. That being so, almost anything can be deemed to belong to the 'Big Society' agenda, and no doubt will be. This might sound a bit sneaky or even dishonest, but it's not really. For part of the research programme, surely, will be precisely to define what the Big Society is or could be, so at least initially it's perfectly legitimate to allow the notion to be interpreted quite flexibly.

Third, after a time Government attention will shift elsewhere. Either Ministers will decide they know enough about the Big Society or they might conclude that it's not such a great idea after all. Or more likely, they will simply latch onto some other idea and focus on that for a while. Meanwhile, AHRC will no longer find itself under such an awkward spotlight, and can go on supporting whatever good research appeals to it.

The wider issue that this current controversy highlights has to do with how far researchers can or should be fully independent of Government influence. This has always been a tricky issue, despite the Haldane principle, especially in areas where proposed research might be applied or link into policy concerns. Government always has the option, either directly or through the Research Councils, of funding research in certain areas of topical interest, and researchers can then choose whether or not to apply for a tranche of such programme funding. This is common practice and seems to work well - and I have been a beneficiary of the process when the ESRC in the 1990s ran programmes to support research on the transition economies of Eastern Europe. One can question whether such directed funding is the best way to get good research done, but at least here the individual researchers are free to decide whether to apply or not - no one compels them to do so. And these programmes have always run alongside responsive mode funding, in which researchers can propose to do any research they like, and they get funded if their proposal is considered sufficiently promising and original.

Given this sort of model, the latest AHRC squabble seems more like a storm in a teacup, and doesn't seem to go too far down the road of compromising researcher autonomy or independence. Researchers can still largely choose what they want to study, either individually or as part of a team, and that is as it should be.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Higher education growth - whole regions missing out

On the BBC news website there was quite a disturbing article yesterday (by Sean Coughlan, March 22nd 2011), pointing out that while higher education growth - including huge increases in student numbers - is a worldwide phenomenon, there isn't a single African university in the world's top 100 universities. Now, one might argue that this reflects some bias in the methods used to construct the rankings, but I think that is highly unlikely to explain the findings. For several world rankings are currently published periodically, with minor differences in methodology between them, and none shows any African institution near the top. Moreover, by now we have a pretty good idea what an 'excellent' university looks like, delivering high quality teaching (at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels) and research (whether theoretical or applied) of international standard, and it is clear that African institutions are currently unable to deliver this, except possibly in limited specialist fields.

Now, the above article focused on Africa, though actually the situation is somewhat similar across another significant region of the world, namely the Middle East, something I find both sad and puzzling given the vigour of the universities of the Moslem world a few centuries ago - when the West still had little to offer intellectually. In addition, Latin America, too, does not come out terribly well from these ranking exercises, though it's probably a little ahead of Africa and the Middle East.

The interesting questions that come to mind, in the face of these facts, are: (a) Why is the situation as it is? And (b) What, if anything, can be done about it? There is also a third question, liked to the first two, (c) Does it matter?

On question (a), answers include lack of resources, low priority for government funding (many countries placed more emphasis on primary education), failing to follow recent trends in higher education (such as seeking to attract students from overseas), losing good staff to wealthy institutions in developed countries, as well as cultural/political issues to do with freedom of speech, institutional autonomy, and the like. Probably different issues apply to different countries. And the trouble is, even if it is widely acknowledged that good higher education has a part to play in supporting a country's economic development, it is hard to change long established practices and institutional culture. Competition between regions and universities probably helps to exacerbate differences since academic staff as a group are exceptionally mobile, and they are likely to move where they find the most congenial academic environment - this is not just about pay, but about academic freedom, teaching loads, research support, and so on.

Given this situation in the world of higher education, what can be done about it? The obvious answer is, somehow, to throw resources at the problem. More funding would obviously help, but I doubt whether it would be enough on its own. For what makes academic life so attractive (at least for me, and I suspect I'm not alone) in good institutions is the ability and freedom to undertake research along whatever lines one might choose, with little or no institutional direction. This ability presupposes a good deal of institutional support in the form of library and IT services, a decent office, and most important of all, time. Thus teaching loads should not be too onerous, and ideally one should be teaching interested, bright and well prepared students, since that in itself helps to create an environment supportive of research. Likewise, it's good to be in a setting with bright, hard-working and enthusiastic colleagues.

In many countries, traditional academic hierarchies can be oppressive rather than supportive of high quality work, both teaching and research. For instance, I'm all too familiar with universities and research institutes from the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe where, in the past, no one would speak at a seminar until the institute director or head of department had spoken, though privately people usually had a lot more to say. In public, people were nervous about saying the 'wrong' thing and stepping out of line. Such a controlled environment does not yield academic excellence however much money is thrown at it. So creating good universities is not just about the funding, though that obviously matters, but also concerns the institutional culture and ethos. These are harder to change.

This brings me to my last question, (c) Does it matter?

I think it does, for three reasons. First, there is a good deal of evidence nowadays that economic growth is helped by improved labour force skills right up to university level. Increasingly, both private sector jobs and public administration require well qualified graduates to deliver good quality performance.

Secondly, in much of Africa and elsewhere, the best students know perfectly well that their own universities currently operate at a very low level - both in terms of their basic funding, and in terms of their academic standards - and so when they can they go abroad to study, often to the US or Europe. On the one hand this provides access to good quality higher education, but the downside of that is that the process of studying abroad often contributes to longer term emigration. In other words, poor countries lose many of their brightest people, because of the structure of the world higher education system. This is a terrible loss, one that is not adequately compensated by flows of remittances that the emigrants often send back home. As China and India are finding, the only way to stop this process and build up domestic skill levels is through developing higher education at home. For smaller, poorer countries, building up good universities domestically is more difficult, but groups of countries might be able to collaborate to deliver higher quality higher education for their people.

Third, quite aside from the immediate economic rationale, access to quality higher education opens up the world to the young people undertaking such studies. Knowledge and understanding for their own sake are commonly undervalued these days, but for me these aspects of university life are absolutely vital.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Modelling university behaviour and choices

Earlier this week I was reading a very interesting theoretical economics paper on the incentives and constraints that influence universities' choices between teaching and research. The paper is by John Beath, Joanna Poyago-Theotoky and David Ulph and it is entitled: 'University Funding Systems: Impact on Research and Teaching'. The paper is available as a Discussion Paper at the Economics e-Journal, and you can download it using this link.

You might imagine that theory has no place in thinking about our universities, or that if it does it should not be economics, but perhaps sociology, political science, anthropology, etc. But it seems to me that this is a big mistake, not because I believe economic theory has all the answers, but because I find that building an economic model, even quite a simple one as in this paper, often helps to illuminate important questions, and sometimes in quite unexpected ways. It is always easy to criticise a model by claiming that this or that assumption is unrealistic, and in a strict formal sense such criticism is nearly always right. But in my view, it is also nearly always irrelevant, because it misunderstands how models work, why we build them, and what we think we can learn from them.

The present paper illustrates these points quite nicely. The model makes a variety of assumptions, some of which clearly relate to core aspects of what universities do and how they function, while other assumptions are more technical and are made to ensure analytical tractability. After all, there isn't great value in a highly complicated model that is considered to be 'correct' in some sense if no one can solve it or derive any interesting conclusions from it. The first type of assumption includes the idea that universities engage in teaching and research, and they have preferences over these two 'outputs' or 'products'. Where the preferences come from remains unexamined, but different universities in the system can place different weights on research as against teaching. The ideas that universities need to produce teaching of at least some minimum quality level, and that quality is costly in terms of academic staff time, are other assumptions built into the model. Achieving research quality is also costly, institutions face a budget constraint implying that there are real tradeoffs between teaching and research, and individual academics have a time budget - if they spend more time on research, less is available for teaching, and conversely.

Most of this seems to me highly reasonable, at least as a useful starting point for analysing universities. Of course, one might want to extend it by modelling aspects of system-wide competition, or by having multiple disciplines (let's say, at least two, to start with the simplest case) in each institution competing for resources. But even the present paper, with reasonable values for the main parameters, reaches some intriguing conclusions. Most notably, it finds that universities are likely to divide into two groups, one of which opts for a very research intensive strategy (the research elite), the other consists of institutions placing greater weight on teaching - they may still do some research but it is not such a central part of their portfolios. Since this is not a terrible approximation to UK reality, I thought it was interesting to see it drop out of a model with such a nice, intuitively appealing and simple structure.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Intelligent life in retreat

Sadly, it seems that in my posting of last September 22nd, 'Signs of intelligent life in Scotland', I was far too optimistic.

For by now, even before the on going review of higher education funding in Scotland has been completed, all the main political parties in Scotland have come out firmly against student fees, whether payable up front or after graduation. One suspects there is a touch of electioneering in the various pronouncements, given the forthcoming Holyrood elections due in the Spring. And some of the recent announcements have also claimed to find support in a recent Universities Scotland paper on the so called 'funding gap' facing the universities. The trouble is, this report came up with a range of numbers starting at roughly £100 million per year, rising to well over £200 million per year. Those against fees have opted to accept the lower estimate, because they think such a gap is just about manageable, though universities themselves seem to think the upper end of the range is more plausible.

So it's all looking very messy and unclear - and definitely not a comfortable time to be a university principal! This is not helped by the latest wheeze from our education minister, Michael Russell, suggesting that our university principals could be elected - presumably by staff (and students?) at their respective institutions - and could be subject to recall if their performance proved unsatisfactory. I know there have been complaints of late about the pay and perks enjoyed by some principals, especially at a time when staff lower down the hierarchy are being made redundant, but that's surely a matter for university courts to handle (perhaps more sensitively than they have in the past), and I'm very sceptical whether elected principals would perform noticeably better than the bunch currently in post.

That aside, where do we stand now as regards university funding in Scotland? The emerging model seems to rest on three pillars:

(1) block grant from Scottish government (paid through the Scottish Funding Council);
(2) fees paid by English and Welsh students studying in Scotland;
(3) fees paid by non-EU overseas students studying in Scotland.

Note that neither Scottish students, nor students from other EU-member states, would pay any fee (though for the latter, the Scottish government does make a payment to the universities).

Given the UK-level squeeze on public spending, item (1) in the above list is going to come under massive pressure. Hence unless Scotland proves to be staggeringly successful under item (3), our universities are heading for trouble, with budgets and staffing levels declining. Hence it is hard to disagree with Brian Monteith in today's Scotsman newspaper ('Vicious circle for Scottish universities', p27), where he sees our universities facing increasingly tough competition over attracting good academic staff and the best students. For universities south of the border will be increasingly well resourced and they will naturally tend to attract the best staff and students.

This decline in the relative competitiveness of Scottish higher education will not happen overnight, of course; these things take time. So for a while, our universities will keep going and in many ways they will look OK. Under the surface, though, teaching and research quality will slowly decline as existing highly rated staff retire or move away, and institutions prove unable to recruit staff of similar or better quality to replace them. Look ahead a decade or two, and Scotland's position in the world of higher education could easily have slipped back a good deal. That can't be a happy prospect for Scotland's students, or indeed for the wider economy.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Politics and higher education

Most of the time, teaching and researching in UK higher education, we like to think of politics as one world and university life as another world, a world that is both different and separate from that of politics. One expression of this viewpoint is the oft heard claim that our universities should conduct their academic work dispassionately and objectively, while taking care to remain politically neutral. Would that it were so simple.

For the still on going Libyan political crisis/popular uprising has already brought great embarrassment to one of our most respected institutions, the London School of Economics (LSE). LSE had not only granted a doctorate to one of Col. Gaddafi's sons, a degree that is now being queried on the grounds of possible plagiarism and even ghost writing (though to my knowledge, nothing improper has yet been proved); but it has also accepted significant funding from Libya - via the same son - and was proposing to deliver leadership training to senior Libyan officials.

Now, when all this was agreed, Libya was well on the way to achieving international 'acceptability', having abandoned its support for terrorism as well as its programme for developing weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, it was common knowledge that the regime remained a pretty nasty dictatorship, but that sad fact has never stopped us doing business with lots of quite unpleasant governments/countries around the world. Hence it's not clear that LSE has actually done anything wrong, unless we think that higher education ought to operate with higher ethical standards than other sectors of the economy. Regardless of that point, one can see why LSE might now feel embarrassed about its close engagement with Libya in the light of recent events. As ever, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Closer to home, the Edinburgh Business School at my university claims to operate a policy of strict political neutrality. One aspect of this arose for me in late 2009, when I was starting to advise a potential DBA student on his research proposal (note - I have changed some details in what follows to protect student anonymity). The student wanted to do work on his home country, Zimbabwe, and was thinking of studying aspects of the country's monetary policy in the preceding decade. I advised him that such a study would be quite difficult, given the poor data and worsening inflation over the decade, resulting in severe hyperinflation. I commented that the dreadful political situation in the country rendered the study of past monetary policy fairly meaningless, and suggested instead that he should look forward - assuming the domestic political situation continued to appear more stable - and consider what a sound monetary policy would look like for his country.

In my view, the advice I gave was accurate, fair and reasonable in the circumstances. However, I was (mildly) reprimanded by the School for making political comments that were considered to depart from the official policy of strict neutrality. Two things about this episode worried me. First, it became apparent that my e-mails back to the students whom I was supervising for the School were being read by a senior supervisor, something I consider quite unethical. Previously, I had been aware that some monitoring of correspondence between students and supervisors took place, but had thought it was merely done to check that we responded to student queries within a reasonable period. Second, it appeared that in order to operate within the official policy of neutrality I was expected to lie to my student, or at least find some 'non political' way of conveying my concerns about the student's proposed research. It seemed to me that the School's approach here was not particularly honest, and this whole (albeit in itself minor) episode is one of the reasons why I ceased to work for the School last Spring.

As a third example, a few years ago I was asked to contribute to a training programme for senior North Korean officials, funded by the Swiss Government and taking place in Geneva. Given that North Korea is a seriously unpleasant place, politically, what are the ethics of my taking part in such an event? I'm sure there are many who would have advised me not to touch such a project, but I decided to go on the grounds that by exposing these folk to some ideas about economic reforms, we might prepare the ground for future reforms in the country - sooner or later. But I acknowledge the moral ambiguity about all this. Moreover, my involvement nearly gave rise to a diplomatic incident, since our topic of economic reform was rejected by the North Korean embassy in Switzerland, but insisted upon by the Swiss Government: in the end, we compromised by agreeing to talk about economic change, which satisfied everyone. At the actual event, the officials concerned turned out to have surprisingly good English and were far more open minded than we had been led to expect - and they were seriously interested in economic reforms, having no hangups at all over the word 'reform'. Only their political minders had been worried about what we might say.

From these examples - and it's easy to think of many more - it is apparent, I think, that the whole notion of political neutrality is quite an elusive and slippery one. Political issues can arise in many areas:
  1. Recruiting students from countries with 'unpleasant' regimes;
  2. Deciding whether and under what conditions to accept research money or other funding from such regimes (and some of the same issues arise over funding from companies);
  3. Deciding whether to undertaking training activities that benefit such a country; and
  4. Deciding whether to accept a consultancy contract in or concerning such a country.
Some of these decisions or choices are matters for individual academics (provided that what they do does not put their institution's good name at risk), some are rather matters of institutional policy. In practical terms, it seems to me quite impossible to operate a higher education institution in such a way that it would only do business with 'nice' regimes, not least because there are too few of these around the world, and exposing people from 'nasty' regimes to a liberal higher education can surely only help to open dialogue, promote understanding, etc. Hence institutions need to be pragmatic rather than totally idealistic, given the diverse and sometimes horrible world we live in.

But let's not kid ourselves that what we do in higher education amounts to political neutrality. That's a nice sounding slogan, but not a very honest one.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

More on research 'impact'

Research 'impact' is something that I've written about or referred to before in previous posts, but the topic just keeps on popping up. Two things have brought it back to my attention recently.

The first was a request within my School at Heriot-Watt University for examples of research that could be said to have made an impact - we came up with various topics to do with studies of transition economies and the policy advice that resulted from this work, but there were plenty of other things we could have mentioned. The second was the announcement by HEFCE, reported in the latest issues of Times Higher Education, that research impact would have a lower weighting in the first REF (Research Excellence Framework) exercise in 2014 than previously planned - 20% instead of 25%. Apparently research outputs will be weighted at 65%, and the research environment at 15%.

According to current plans for the REF, impact in the assessment period, January 2008 to July 2013, will be based on research carried out over the previous 15 years, reflecting the fact that impact sometimes takes a long time to come through. Departments will be expect to provide an 'impact statement' explaining how they have supported and encouraged 'impact', and they will have to submit 'impact case studies'.

Of course, these days academic departments are pretty good at jumping through hoops, so we shall no doubt think of something to say, possibly even something mildly sensible, to meet the impact requirements of the new REF. But seriously, does anyone really think that all this stuff about impact can possibly make much sense? The underlying agenda, it seems to me, is the current obsession with efficiency, accountability, and justifying what we do in universities both to politicians and to the general public. In other words, what we are being asked to do is play the currently fashionable political game.

But it's a pretty silly game, and I hope the fashion soon changes to something more meaningful. After all, what we're supposed to do in a university is undertake research in all sorts of areas that interest us, and that we have the talent and skills to undertake. Mostly, when we embark on a new project, we have no idea whether or how it will be 'useful' or have an 'impact', and very often the research that does turn out to have a big impact was not initially expected to do so. Often we just don't know, and more importantly, can't know, where impact will show up. That's part of what makes academic research so endlessly fascinating!