Poppletonian coverage

Out of the closet

There is, of course, no greater honour than to receive a mention in the august organ that is the Poppletonian. Following a piece on ‘the people below stairs’ in the Times Higher, this important matter was followed up on the back page:

Louise Bimpson, the corporate director of our ever-expanding human resources team, has warmly welcomed the proposal by Paul Greatrix, the registrar of the University of Nottingham, that a ban be placed on the use of the term “back office” to describe university administrative staff.

She told our reporter, Keith Ponting (30), that she agreed that the term not only demeaned administrative staff but also suggested that they were more expendable than other members of the university.

Bimpson said that she was already taking steps to remove the term from all official documentation. But when pressed by Ponting, she was unable to say whether this ban might be extended to such other traditional Poppletonian terms for administrative staff as “pen-pushers”, “bean counters”, “faceless bureaucrats” and “time-serving lickspittles”.

Thank you Ms Bimpson. (And apologies for the self-indulgence.)

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The Strategic Plan: a tool for administrative power?

Questioning the purpose of the strategic plan

The Chronicle of Higher Education carries an extract from a new book by Benjamin Ginsberg on the ‘all-administrative university’ which apparently argues that:

that the explosive growth in administration, the decline in faculty influence, and the institutional corporatization of American universities contributes to a loss of intellectual rigor.

So, doesn’t sound at all polemical then. But the extract on strategic planning is quite interesting:

The strategic plan serves several important purposes for administrators. First, when they organize a planning process and later trumpet their new strategic plan, senior administrators are signaling to the faculty, to the trustees, and to the general community that they are in charge. The plan is an assertion of leadership and a claim to control university resources and priorities. This function of planning helps to explain why new presidents and sometimes new deans usually develop new strategic plans. We would not expect newly elected presidents of the United States simply to affirm their predecessors’ inaugural addresses. In order to demonstrate leadership to the nation, they must present their own bold initiatives and vision for the future. For college leaders, the strategic plan serves this purpose.

A second and related purpose served by planning is co-optation. A good deal of evidence suggests that the opportunity to participate in institutional decision-making processes affords many individuals enormous psychic gratification. For this reason, clever administrators see periodic consultation as a means of inducing employees to be more cooperative and to work harder.

And it goes on. Essentially the argument is that not only is strategic planning a waste of time, it is also a tool for administrators to secure power and control over faculty. There are undoubtedly examples of where strategic planning is done poorly or undertaken insincerely or even cynically. And whilst it is always possible to over elaborate strategic planning, when properly executed it can be a key vehicle for achieving institutional change and improvement.

But this is clearly not the view here:

The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America’s colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the continuing growth of administrative power.

I’m not sure I’ll be buying the book.

Honorary degree anyone?

More graduation fun

The Guardian invites us to consider this year’s honorary degree recipients:

It’s about this time of year that academics start digging out their robes and dusting off their mortar boards, as thousands of students prepare to receive their degrees at graduation ceremonies across the country. Accompanying them will be a hand-selected elite deemed worthy enough to obtain an honorary degree.

This year’s crop of honorary grads is a diverse group, from True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård, who receives his from Leeds Metropolitan University having studied there for six months before dropping out, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson who’s picked up an honorary doctorate for his contribution to music from Queen Mary’s University in London and Jarvis Cocker, who picked one up from his Alma Mater Central Saint Martins. Even the bloke behind the meerkat adverts, Darren Walsh, got one from the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham.

As if that weren’t enough there are many others this year:

Jennifer Saunders – Edge Hill
Jeff Beck – Sussex
Kenny Dalglish – Ulster
Fiona Phillips – Cardiff
Lee Child – DMU
Patrick Stewart – UEA
Ray Clemence – Lincoln
Donald Sinden – Kent
John Barrowman – RSAMD
Armando Ianucci – Glasgow
Duffy – Bangor
Roger Black – Surrey
Jon Snow – Liverpool

For many of these celebs, this is their first experience of picking up an honorary. Bus as noted in an earlier post on this topic, some people have more than others. And Desmond Tutu, collecting an honorary degree from the University of Leicester this month, has around 50 of them.

Some other recent(ish) recipients of note:

Kim Cattrall – Liverpool JMU
James May – Lancaster
Omar Sharif – Hull
Orlando Bloom – Kent
Ken Dodd – Liverpool Hope
Jack Dee – Winchester
Alan Shearer – Newcastle
Pam St Clement – Plymouth

It’s a star-studded collection. Sadly no place for the Chuckle Brothers this year though.

Global Graduation Ceremonies

Graduation – anytime, anywhere

It is, in the UK at least, near the end of the season for graduation ceremonies. But as Nigel Thrift observed in a recent piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education there are likely to be ceremonies taking place across the globe, year round.

Graduates are getting younger every year...

Thrift notes that

the globalization of higher education means that it can no longer be assumed that all graduation ceremonies take place in one place. Making ceremonies in places which were not designed for the purpose can be a real challenge and simply having robes to hand does not work.

Probably, at some point during the year, somewhere in the world, there is a graduation ceremony taking place. At one time, it looked like these events might become a thing of the past but the apparatus of gowns, music, certificates, photographs, and films now just seems to keep on expanding. One for the anthropologists to explain.

It is perhaps strange how the traditions of the graduation ceremony have survived and indeed flourished across the world. However, as noted above, globalisation means that a lot of universities are now organising ceremonies in different parts of the globe. Wherever in the world the ceremonies are though they remain a major logistical exercise and a lot more effort than simply having the robes to hand (although that in itself can have a major impact on travelling staff luggage allowances).

At the University of Nottingham we have summer and winter ceremonies out our UK, China and Malaysia campuses (I think nearly 40 a year in total) and, despite all following the same rubric, they each have a distinctive character. And it is fair to say that the dress code in both China and Malaysia, where it tends to be a little bit warmer at this time of year, is generally rather more relaxed than in the UK. Perhaps a bit too relaxed at times – I do think we should draw the line at flip flops.

Intelligent gaming?

“The Game Designer’s Tale”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an English lecturer’s novel creation of a boardgame based on the Canterbury Tales. Learning through play?

In The Road to Canterbury, each player functions as the character of the Pardoner, traveling with seven of Chaucer’s pilgrims, each of whom is afflicted with one of the seven deadly sins. Using relic, sin, and pilgrim cards, the Pardoner tries to persuade the others that they will die if they succumb to greed. In truth, says Mr. Seegert, the Pardoner is the greediest of the lot, hoping the others will “buy his fake indulgences so they can enjoy remission of their sins and spend less time in purgatory.”

Players store their winnings in coin purses, which Mr. Seegert says is deeply symbolic: “Chaucer depicts the Pardoner as having a very indeterminate gender, and it’s as if his coin purse is compensating for what he lacks between his legs.”

“The goal in the game is to become as corrupt and wealthy a Pardoner as possible,” Mr. Seegert says. “It’s completely irony-laced. You benefit from all the evil things that you’ve done.”

Sounds like a real winner this. It’s amazing no-one has thought of it before. Next stop Paradise Lost?

Administrators cannot offer ‘enlightened management’

Some views on administrators and academics as university leaders

Geoffrey Williams has recently argued that administrators cannot deliver enlightened management in universities. According to Williams only academics can do so:

Administration, like death and taxes, has always been here. Universities need enlightened management; the reality is that only faculty can provide this. Universities also require and employ professional managers. The situation is similar to that in hospitals, another world that requires great dedication from its staff. As everyone knows, if you leave a hospital solely in the hands of professional administrators, the patient is forgotten. Likewise, if you leave a university solely in the hands of a professional manager, there is a risk that both students and research will no longer be to the fore.

David Allen offers a rather different perspective:

Only about one in three employees of universities are academics, but given the academic purpose of universities they tend to have the biggest input in shaping the job and person description, at least in general terms, for VC and other leadership appointments. I take it as a given that senior managers in universities, even if they are not academics, must be able to empathise with academic values and to create strong, positive relations with academic colleagues. Universities are not and should not be command and control organisations. Managers need to proceed by persuasion and the force of the evidenced better argument. Creativity, tension, individuality and resistance to change are often embedded in the academic DNA. Academics have many and varied strategies to bypass managerial processes and edicts which they perceive to inhibit their activities and it is clearly more difficult for a manager who lacks academic credibility to achieve acceptance. A VC/DVC/PVC with an academic pedigree starts higher up the grid and has more of a reservoir of goodwill when difficult choices have to be made. This needs to be balanced with the changing requirements for Vice-Chancellors to be credible with business, not least in relation to fundraising. Academic credibility needs perhaps to be balanced more with other requirements for senior management success rather than as a sine qua non and a barrier to entry to the competition for otherwise well qualified candidates. This would increase the talent pool available for consideration from both within and outwith the sector.

Allen argues sensibly for an open minded approach to recruiting university leaders rather than Williams’ more exclusive approach. All of this echoes an earlier post on the issue of whether academics do indeed make the best university leaders and in particular why it is unhelpful to focus solely on this issue of who is better equipped to lead:

…if a university simply disregards the importance of a first class administration to support first class teaching and world-leading research then it will end up with disorganised, chaotic and expensive processes which hinder rather than help – it is this scenario which has the most negative impact on the productivity of researchers. It’s like building an excellent football team but paying no attention to the pitch, stadium or finances. You might perform well for a time but not sustainably. And sooner or later those star players will get fed up with washing their own kit, selling programmes and clearing up the stands after the game.

So, whilst I might remain mildly annoyed at the suggestion that someone like me could only ever offer benighted misdirection to a university, what really irks about all of this is the idea of mutual exclusivity: whatever the background of the leader, s/he will not be acting alone and will have a team of colleagues working with her/him to deliver success. Universities may well often best be led by leading academics but no one individual, whatever their background, is going to be able to do everything on their own. Universities are just too big, complex and diverse.

Should you shake hands at graduation?

University staff living on the edge?

Topical issue this in graduation season. A researcher at Johns Hopkins University has been studying the health risks associated with shaking hands at graduation:

Bishai got the idea for the project after years of attending the Bloomberg School’s graduations and wondering what would be growing on the dean’s hand at the end of the day. His interest was piqued when he learned that some officials at Johns Hopkins graduations were sneaking squirts of hand sanitizer behind the podium. When he raised the issue in a class full of undergrads in his Health Economics class, six volunteered as research assistants to help collect samples that spring.

Bishai goes on to say, “Based on the evidence from this study, the probability of acquiring bacterial pathogens during handshaking could be lower than is commonly perceived by the general public. Individuals who already engage in hand hygiene after handshaking should not be dissuaded from this practice. With a lower bound estimate of one bacterial pathogen acquired in 5,209 handshakes, the study offers the politicians, preachers, principals, deans and even amateur hand shakers some reassurance that shaking hands with strangers is not as defiling as some might think.”

Important findings then for staff and graduands alike.

True crime on campus §12: Just another day

Yet more true crime on campus

This time it is a selection of reports from just one day at the University of Nottingham. Perhaps not an entirely typical day, there is something of an end of term feel about some of the events. Nevertheless, our terrific Security staff have to be ready to deal with just about everything…

13:45 Security asked a skateboarder to stop riding on Science Road between L2 and the Auditorium. He ignored the request and continued. Security then saw him coming out of the Chemistry building and asked him for his ID. Student provided details, he was told not to skateboard on the roads again.

15:15 Security provided access to Highfield Sports Ground for the air ambulance.

15:20 It was reported by the Cripps Hall Manager that there was a BBQ on the grass area that had not been authorised. Security attended and asked them to extinguish it. This was done immediately by the Students.

15:45 Security received a report regarding the parking at Cripps Hall. On investigation Security found cars parked on the grass and a group of Students having a party with a swimming pool and water slide. After talking to the group they said they had got permission from the hall porter to do this. The hall porter was contacted and permission was not given. Students removed the pool and slide.

19:25 Security were called to Maths and Physics car park to remove a clamp from a vehicle that had broken down. Clamp removed no further action.

21:10 It was reported that a group of Students had been seen in fancy dress complete with a baseball bat. Security located the Students in Ancaster Hall bar, Security approached the Student with the baseball bat and advised him it was not an ideal accessory for a night out. Student was told he could collect it in the morning from the Security Office. Student was apologetic and polite throughout.

21:45 It was reported that 25 drunk male students dressed as chickens were destroying the bar at Willoughby Hall. On arrival the Willoughby Hall tomb stone had been ripped up and lying in the middle of the road. The Students were outside and heading in the direction of Florence Boot Hall. On arrival the Students were refused entry, after some initial arguing they moved on in the direction of Cut Through Lane. They caused general disruption to the traffic flow stopping cars and the hopper bus. Due to the Students separating it was not possible to take names. They headed towards the Trent Building, Mooch bar were advised not to let them enter. The Students then headed towards the downs and not seen again.

22:40 Security were called to attend Derby Hall as a group of approximately 30 students were arguing. It was very heated and seemed to be getting out of hand. It appeared that third year students had entered the Hall and removed a fire extinguisher and caused havoc in the kitchen area. In response the first year students has been exceptionally aggressive and physical. All parties had different versions of the events. Security advised first year Students to return to their rooms and third years to leave the area. Within several minutes the area was clear. Warden informed.

23:00 It was reported to Security that a local resident had made a complaint about noise coming from Ancaster Hall. On arrival they found approximately 40 students leaving the hall shouting and singing. Security told them to quieten down which they did. Students were getting into taxis and onto coaches ready to leave the campus. No further action.

British students flocking to the US Ivy League. Or not?

An untrained brain drain?

In a recent post I commented on the press reports on the modest flow of English students to universities in continental Europe and the reverse flow of other EU students to the UK. The media seems extremely keen to report any international movement by students from the UK as evidence of a flight from the 2012 fee regime (at least for students from England). So, the Telegraph has a feature on British students turning to US Ivy League universities:

According to figures, Harvard had around 500 British applications to start courses this autumn, up from around 370 for last year – a 35 per cent increase.

Yale enrolled 36 British students onto undergraduate courses last year, up from 25 in 2009 – a 44 per cent rise. Five years ago, in 2006, just 15 students enrolled.

Some 197 students from England and Wales alone have applied to start courses at Cornell this autumn, up from 176 last year.

Information from Columbia University shows that 178 British students enrolled in 2009, up from 164 in 2008 and 151 in 2003.

Berkeley University, which is not an Ivy League college, has had 166 British applications for this autumn, compared with 130 last year.

To put this into perspective, there were over 630,000 applications through UCAS for 2011 entry to UK universities. And there were over 14,300 US students studying in the UK in 2008/09. This is, therefore, a drop in the ocean.

University of the People v College for the Few

For the many or the few?

A previous post commented on the Fantasy institution that is the New College of the Humanities. This story rumbles on in the UK and is continuing source of interest for many. But whatever one might think of the merits or otherwise of the project, no-one would seek to suggest it is primarily concerned with widening participation. The BBC summary of the story captures the essence of the NCH proposition:

The New College of the Humanities says it will teach “gifted” undergraduates and prepare them for degrees from the University of London.

The privately-owned London-based college will open in September 2012 and is planning to charge fees of £18,000.

The 14 professors involved include biologist Richard Dawkins and historian Sir David Cannadine.

Professor Dawkins is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, as well as being the author of The God Delusion, and Sir David is a professor at Princeton University in the United States.

Based in Bloomsbury, central London, the new college says it will offer eight undergraduate courses in the humanities taught by some of the world’s most prominent academics.

Degrees cover five subject areas – law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy.

So it really is a marginal, if interesting and entertaining, development. As William Cullerne Brown puts it:

Yet the more I think about these aspects, the less worried I am. The NEH is reminiscent of the many liberal arts colleges that flourish in the US. Some are prestigious, most aren’t. But none has a hope of rivalling Harvard and Yale. In an established market like England, I don’t see the NEH gaining the reputational traction it aspires to. It is demanding high grades from applicants, but what if it doesn’t get them? The investors can’t just say forget it then – if things go badly it could easily become known instead as a place for rich thickos. And anyway, the NEH is not a new sector. It can’t be more than just one, apparently quite small, place. And it can never be more than a tiny fraction of what the Russell Group needs to win the political long game, even if you oppose its objective.

Contrast this with a fascinating new model for tuition-free higher education in the US as recently reported by The Washington Post:

The Pasadena, Calif., nonprofit university offers college coursework to about 1,000 students worldwide essentially for free. The only charge is a one-time application fee of $10 to $50, which varies according to the comparative wealth of the student’s home nation.

Professors and deans donate their labors. Founder Shai Reshef has just two paid academic employees. Students access and download assignments online. Class discussions take place in old-fashioned text-based chat rooms, which enable students to participate on the most marginal of computers.

“The idea is to open the gate for anyone who wants to study,” Reshef said during a visit to The Washington Post.

Founded in 2009, University of the People claims to be the world’s first tuition-free online university “dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education”. The institution exploits the growing reach and falling cost of online study.

Some volunteer administrators and faculty come from Columbia, NYU and other prestigious universities, drawn, Reshef said, by the potentially transformational power of a free, online, global university. Formal partners include Yale Law School; NYU plans to offer some of Reshef’s students transfer to its campus in Abu Dhabi.

A quite different approach.

Agonising over International Student Recruitment

Squeamish or purist? US universities debating use of recruitment agents

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on what sounds like a lively debate on the use of agents for international student recruitment.

The practice of paying overseas agents for the students they recruit has become more contentious as it has grown more common among American colleges. Proponents say it can help attract students in an increasingly competitive global student market, and they note that other countries, like Australia and Britain, rely on foreign representatives to bring in students.

But a primary membership group for admissions officials, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, has released a proposed policy statement that would expressly forbid colleges from using commission-based agents to recruit domestically or internationally. (Institutions cannot pay commissions for domestic students if they receive federal financial-aid funds.)

… Mr. Hawkins questioned paying commissions to student recruiters, saying the practice, when used by for-profit institutions in the United States, had proved “disastrous” in the past. “It creates an incentive to marginalize students’ interests,” he said.

So, are they being unduly squeamish? Or is it more about adopting a principled approach to international student recruitment? Many UK universities have routinely used agents for international recruitment for many years but the key here is about how you do it and making sure you use the right ones. As Mitch Leventhal of SUNY points out in an essay about engaging properly with agents, it’s essential to maintain high standards.

While US universities agonise about this it is of course good news for competitor nations in international student recruitment. And in the UK we need every assistance we can get to counteract the negative effect of the messaging and the practice of Tier 4 immigration controls.