Friday, 21 September 2012

Academic employment contracts

I was going to continue the discussion of the last posting on disruptive innovation and how it might impinge on our universities - and I shall come back to that topic quite soon. But almost by accident, while in the Budapest Corvinus University yesterday, I found myself talking about - and then thinking about - academic employment contracts. These have evolved over time, naturally, but they remain in many ways surprisingly open ended and almost informal.

When I first became a professor at Heriot-Watt University, back in 1985, my contract then basically said that I was appointed to be a professor, that I was responsible to the Principal of the University (in other words, he was formally designated as my line manager), and that I would be head of the then economics department for an initial five year spell. There was also a little about holiday, sick-pay, rules about consultancy and outside earnings, and stuff like that. But I don't recall anything in the contract that gave any clues as to what exactly a professor was supposed to do. In those days, I think, the presumption was that if you had got as far as becoming a professor, you should have absorbed enough of the 'ethos' and 'culture' of academic life to know what to do, without needing anything in the way of instructions or explicit guidance. And actually, that presumption was probably broadly correct.

Thus my contract provided at most a very sketchy outline of my role, while informal understandings across the academic community, and my personal goals to develop my own research, provided plenty of motivation and direction to keep me busy and (hopefully) productive. Moreover, I knew for sure that the Principal was not remotely interested in being an active line manager. He was clearly happiest when I just got on with the job (as defined by me), and was more than content to have the very occasional chat over lunch or a coffee for a quick update on what I was doing. Back then, we had no research assessments to contend with, no teaching quality assessments, no individual staff appraisal with annual targets and performance reports. So from a 'modern' perspective, it probably all sounds almost shockingly informal.

Even our external activities, including consultancy, were handled with considerable informality. It was taken for granted that as a professor, I would do some external examining for other universities, referee journal articles, and things like that, and I still do much of this, despite being officially retired. These are mostly unpaid activities (OK, external examining is not unpaid, but the remuneration is derisory; no one would do it for the money!) that most academics do as a routine part of being an academic. It goes with the territory - but there's nothing in our contracts about it.

As for consultancy, my 'old contract', long ago superseded by more restrictive conditions, allowed me to work up to one day per week outside the University without any special permission. I hardly ever took advantage of that provision, and the first time I worked for the World Bank, in 1990, I did consult the Principal about the project. I found myself in the bizarre position of trying to convince him that we should ask for an overhead contribution for the University (we did ask, and we got one), and I thought he might want the University to take a share of the income I was going to earn. 'No, no', he said, indicating that it was good for the University's reputation and standing to be engaged with bodies like the World Bank. He insisted that I keep all the money (which was not a huge sum, it must be admitted).

So much for the informality of the past, which was nevertheless perfectly compatible with working hard and being a productive academic, delivering a good, supportive teaching service to our students, and doing interesting research.

Nowadays, though, universities have shifted strongly in the direction of being more managerial, partly for external reasons to do with accountability - to funders, to the general public, to our students, etc. And partly for internal reasons, an increasing trend towards surrounding all our activities with extensive paper trails (for audit and accountability reasons, and also to provide protective documentation in the event of appeals and lawsuits), and towards thinking that we can get the best out of staff by managing/supervising them more closely. The last point, in my view, is just mistaken, but it seems to be the prevailing approach now.

Our contracts are probably a bit more precisely specified than they used to be, though they remain remarkably open ended. But in the academic working environment they are everywhere supplemented by quite detailed management of most of what we do. I sometimes wonder what this does  to academic incentives to do different things. In particular, service to the wider academic community is not managed, not incentivised (to use a truly horrible modern word) at all, and I wonder whether the next generation of academics will simply take the view that it is no longer part of the academic job. Or shall we move to a position where these external, and largely unpaid activities have to be properly paid for - so instead of a notional fee of £100, say, for examining a PhD, one would have to be paid, shall we say, £1500?

I would personally feel rather sad if the academic community did move far in this direction, as I like the traditional cooperative ethos and find that over the years it has given me the broad framework I have needed to manage the different strands of my work reasonably well. And I suppose I also feel that if institutions want their academics to deliver good work, it's not very wise to be overly prescriptive regarding what they should be doing. The academic 'job' is too complicated and diverse to be pinned down like that.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Modernising higher education: How to do it?

Well, here I am in Budapest, probably my favourite city, as a guest of the Budapest Corvinus University. My visit is paid for by the EU, through some funding to promote academic links and mobility between EU universities, and the deal involves me giving a lecture in the University, which for my present visit takes place this afternoon. My lecture will be on the theme of institutions and transition (to a market economy), something that has occupied much of my research time in recent years.

As has often been the case when I have visited Hungary, there is a lot of talk in the universities about reforming curricula and course structures, improving the teaching materials provided to students, and all that sort of thing. More worryingly, I think, there are strong centralising tendencies in Hungary just now, with the present government thinking that it can best control economic life - and, as it turns out, educational life, too - through controlling appointments to key positions. This seems to me quite an unhealthy and undesirable tendency, more about asserting political control and not much to do with improving quality, either in the economy or in the universities.

So how can we improve quality in the universities, either in Hungary or back home in the UK? And what, indeed, do we mean by quality?

My thoughts about this were stimulated at the beginning of September by an article written by John Kay for the Financial Times, in which he was discussing the disruptive aspects of significant innovations, and hence  the tendency for established firms to resist them. Let me simply quote his final paragraph:

'Economic growth is held back by industries where established interests are so powerful that disruptive innovation can be staved off for ever. Financial services is probably one. And education another. I often think of the contrast between the power of information technology to transform the process of learning, and the little progress that has been made towards actually doing so.'

On this view, new ideas, new approaches to teaching may not even originate in the established universities, because vested interests - used to old ways of doing things, and thinking they know best - will firmly resist major innovations, and will even complain loudly about the rise of upstart institutions trying to organise teaching differently. The traditional universities will protest about falling quality, when what they might really be resisting is the rise of wholly new types of educational 'product'. We don't know yet, but the next decade or so will undoubtedly reveal a rapidly changing market structure in the world of higher education, pointing in all sorts of new directions. Some of these will do well, some will, naturally, fail, as is quite normal.

For myself, I have spent my entire career in traditional universities, I am used to the models and methods of teaching that we employ, and have even accepted a few minor changes now and again, as systems evolve. But the way we teach now is not really vastly different from the way it was 30-40 years ago, aside from some bigger classes, larger seminar groups, and a bit more classwork and continuous assessment than we used to have. But all this does little more than scratch the surface of the traditional model, and how sure can we be that what we do is really the 'best' model for most of our students?

Moreover, even the quality assessments that are carried out now are based on the presumption that this model is indeed the right way to do things. So anyone offering something quite different, would have a hard time getting a good quality rating, I suspect. In this sense, the traditional model of the teaching function in universities is very much self-reinforcing, and resistant to change. Naturally, we regulate the system by controlling who has the power to award degrees and other qualifications, and such privileges are jealously guarded.

But nowadays there are many pressures that might open up higher education to disruptive innovation, and I'll write more about these in my next posting.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Too busy....

The last few weeks have been a bit crazy, far too much going on and too much work to do! Retirement wasn't supposed to be like this, was it?

Hence the lack of entries on this blog, but I hope to catch up in the next week or two as there's lots of interesting stuff going on in the university world. I've been reading lots, but have had no time to write anything for a while.

So what's my 'excuse', what's been keeping me so busy?

The problem really is that I like being retired not because I want to sit around doing nothing very much, but because it gives me the freedom to do what I want without worrying about teaching schedules, university bureaucracy, and the like. However, the world is such an interesting place that there seems to be an endless stream of potential projects and activities - some purely academic (and hence unpaid), and some taking the form of consultancy projects (and hence paid) - involving a variety of countries. And my main weakness is that when interesting things come along, I'm still not very good at saying 'no'.

Recent projects have been on North Korea (paper written and already published), study of investment in Kuwait (completed and approved), the Falkland Islands (on going), and on the UK's experience of the Private Finance Initiative (on going). Next week, however, I'll be a guest of the Budapest Corvinus University in Hungary, with only one lecture to deliver and otherwise a fairly light schedule. So I plan to use some of my time there catching up with University Life.