The University of Nottingham at the Olympics

As has previously been noted here the University of Nottingham is very keen on the Olympics:

The Aspire sculpture becomes the Olympic Torch for the day

Six University of Nottingham graduates have bagged Olympic medals for Team GB over the past 20 years, making it the UK’s 7th most successful university at the Olympics.

To put this in context, 80 countries have never won an Olympic medal, while another 41 (including former nations) have won fewer than four, according to Wikipedia.

Our recent success has come on the water. Flat water canoeist Tim Brabants picked up a gold and a bronze in Beijing, adding to the bronze he’d won at Sydney in 2000, during a break from his degree in Medicine.

In 2009, Tim received an honorary degree from the University and an MBE. He’s looking to defend his Olympic title after securing his place for Team GB in the K1 1,000m event.

Tim Brabants and David Florence

The University’s reputation on the water is secured by three more Olympic medalists. Gareth Marriott won Britain’s first Olympic canoeing medal with a silver in the Canadian Singles Class at Barcelona in 1992, and Campbell Walsh secured silver in the K1 event at Athens 2004. And London 2012 gives David Florence the chance to go one better than the silver he bagged in the C1 category in Beijing four years ago.

More details of these and other Olympic connections, including pieces on cultural connections, one of our Paralympic hopefuls and some of the stars of the future, can be found in the latest edition of Exchange magazine.

Looking to match the success of one of our Honorary Graduates, Rebecca Adlington, in winning a medal are the following Nottingam alumni and students:

* Tim Brabants (Medicine 1999): Men’s Kayak Singles (K1) 1,000m, Finals — Eton Dorney, Monday 6 and Wednesday 8 August
* Johny Akinyemi (Philosophy and Theology 2010): Men’s Kayak Singles (K1) 1,000m — Eton Dorney, Sunday 29 July and Wednesday 1 August
* David Florence (Mathematical Physics 2005): Men’s Canoe Slalom (C1) — Eton Dorney, Sunday 29 July and Tuesday 31 July and Men’s Canoe Doubles (C2) — Eton Dorney, Monday 30 July and Thursday 2 August
* Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie (both Mechanical Engineering 2000): Men’s Canoe Doubles (C2) — Eton Dorney, Monday 30 July and Thursday 2 August
* Rob Moore (Economics 2003), Nick Catlin (History 2010) and Harry Martin (Economics 2015): Men’s Hockey — Riverbank Arena, Monday 30 July to Saturday 11 August
* Anne Panter (Mathematics and Economics 2009): Women’s Hockey — Riverbank Arena, Sunday 29 July to Friday 10 August.
* Chris Bartley (Biology 2005): Rowing Men’s Four — Eton Dorney, Monday 30 July to Saturday 4 August.
* Olivia Whitlam (Environmental Science 2006): Rowing Women’s Eight — Eton Dorney, Sunday 29 July — Thursday 2 August.

Very best of luck to them all.

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The Imperfect University: The Cult of Efficiency

The cult of efficiency

I’ve recently been reminded about a great book recommended to me by my former supervisor, Nigel Norris. Half a century since its publication it remains a fascinating read and sits midpoint between two eras of educational change which, perhaps surprisingly, seem to have a lot in common. (Note that a large part of what follows is taken from my book Dangerous Medicine: Problems with quality and standards in UK higher education which is available for Kindle via Amazon at what I’m sure we’d all agree is a very competitive price.)

Callahan’s book, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, published in 1962 offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education. When I first looked at this I was interested in the ways in which industrial quality assurance frameworks seemed to be enthusiastically adopted by some in higher education with little regard for context, with one of the main drivers for the application of industrial models to HE being the belief that efficiency and economy will result.

The economic imperative is one which has been vested in higher education with ever greater force since the early 1970s but has forerunners in other spheres too. Callahan’s detailed and in many ways prescient study, shows the effect of scientific management, Taylorism, on US schools in the early part of the last century, the effects of which were felt in the American education system until the 1960s.[i] The essence of the problems this approach caused are articulated as the promotion of cost accounting over educational value and these ideas permeated the whole education system including the universities. The notion developed of schools as ‘service stations’ which represented the ‘natural outgrowth of years of business influence’ and the idea ‘that the public should provide the specifications for the educational ‘products’ which were turned out by the schools’.[ii] These concepts provide interesting parallels with the educational landscape in the UK today.

The primacy of the world of business was as real in the US of the second decade of the last century as it is in the UK today with ‘the community’ and ‘the business community’ being seen by many school administrators at that time as synonymous. Students were expected to undertake service for their communities (which often meant cheap labour for local employers) and there was a strong emphasis on the importance of student thrift. The response by school administrators, in the face of a critical public which was concerned with economy in public spending, was to turn educators into technicians producing products to specifications.

Administrators therefore embraced economy measures and accepted increased class sizes based on ‘evidence’ that large classes did not diminish performance, a situation which remained in US schools until the 60s. One of the side-effects of this economy drive was a disproportionate focus on the trivial and measurable, a development supported by the training given to school administrators in graduate schools of education. This resulted in work which focused on measuring, for example, toilet paper use, ink consumption and heating savings.[iii] As late as 1938 a text on the principles of school administration included specific instructions on how a janitor should dust desks. Callahan cites Flexner who shows that the emphasis on service, selling education, mass production and measurement of trivia was equally widespread in US higher education at this time.[iv]

Overall, Callahan characterises the impact of scientific management as tragic with education ‘adopting values and practices indiscriminately and applying them with little or no consideration of educational values or purposes’. The wholesale adoption of basic business values and techniques represented a serious mistake in education and in the period from 1910-1929, when efficiency was demanded, what was actually meant was lower costs with no reference to the quality of the ‘product’. At this time the public was suspicious of public institutions and in awe of the world of business (before the stock market crash) and saw scientific management as an appropriate solution. Administrators were, in this context, entirely complicit with this misapplication of business processes and values. The impact of this period was widespread and enduring (despite the depression), as those trained during this period went on to hold positions of power for many years, and the ideas remained dominant into the 1960s with an emphasis on business and technical values at the expense of the educational. Similar societal factors can be seen in the UK in the 1980s onwards which perhaps helps to explain the potency of industrial ideas in education in this country too.

Looking forward, it is possible to envisage a (not very attractive) future in which most of our schools are ‘free’ and, in the absence of any other direction, turn to inappropriate models and measurements and follow a 21st Century version of Taylorism in order to deliver ‘products’ which it is believed the country needs. Whether or not such a scenario comes to pass it is to be hoped that a similar cult of efficiency will not take hold in higher education.


[i] Callahan, R E (1962), Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[ii] ibid, p227.

[iii] ibid, pp242-3.

[iv] ibid, p243, referring to Flexner, A (1930), Universities America, English, German, New York.

The Beginning of the End for Traditional HE?

Will MOOCs kill universities?

The future for universities?

No.

Forbes carries an expansive piece on the implications of MOOCs and asks “Is Coursera the Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education?“.

Could high-quality MOOCs eventually do to traditional colleges and universities what Craigslist has done to classified advertising in newspapers and what Wikipedia has done to encyclopedias? In other words, could Coursera and its ilk replace a $250,000 college degree and decimate the world of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities?

A previous post highlighted many of the issues and challenges associated with MOOCs. In summary, some of problems with these developments include:

  • There is no proper academic quality assurance: by and large anyone can offer any course they want without any need for approval.
  • Self-selection: courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students.

  • Drop out rates are inevitably very high.
  • There isn’t any meaningful or quality assured assessment.
  • Non-accreditation: completion will get you an attendance certificate or a virtual badge rather than credit or a real qualification.

Of course this Forbes piece is just the most extreme example of the overblown hype surrounding MOOCs. As suggested in the earlier piece on these developments, MOOCs have more in common with the growth in adult education and the expansion of Mechanics’ Institutes in the late 19th Century. Unlike classified ads in newspapers and encyclopaedias, universities are built on more enduring foundations. Yes there will be challenges from the new online provision but the idea that Coursera and the like will kill off universities is just absurd. And all that content has to come from somewhere.

The most entertaining response to this kind of piece I have seen is over at the Easily Distracted blog. Under the headline “Listen up you primitive screwheads” we find the following spot on observatopn:

Again, pundits, let’s talk. MOOCs are damn interesting, you betcha, but seriously, if you think they’re about to solve the labor-intensivity of higher education tomorrow with no losses or costs in quality, you have a lot of learning to do. Not just about the costs and budgets of higher education today, but about the history of distance learning. Right now you guys sound like the same packs of enthusiastic dunderheads who thought that public-access television, national radio networks, or correspondence courses were going to make conventional universities obsolete via technological magic. And hey, if you’re that keen on the digital, skip the drinks, I’m happy to educate you via email.

Hear, hear.

I’m looking forward to when the fuss dies down a little and we can assess more soberly the contribution that MOOCs might make to higher education more generally. In the meantime I guess we’ll just have to put up with this kind of ‘is this the end for universities?’ silliness.

The Value of International University Networks

There are more than you might think…

The July edition of the International Unit newsletter (which can be downloaded as a PDF here) has an interesting article on the value and power of international university networks. It identifies the following consortia as the main players:

Academic Consortium 21

Association of Commonwealth Universities

Coimbra Group

Santander Universities

Universitas 21

Worldwide Universities Network

It is suggested that these networks have become powerful players which are often integral to institutions’ internationalisation strategies:

The University of Bristol’s internationalisation strategy, for example, describes the Worldwide Universities Network as ‘successful, productive and well-established’, and refers to membership as ‘a key focus of international collaboration’. Similarly, the University of Kent presents its membership of the Santander Universities network as integral to its profound and longstanding European engagement.

U21 Presidents

The University of Nottingham is part of Universitas 21 which was founded in 1997 and now has 24 members from across the world:

Universitas 21 is the leading global network of research-intensive universities, working together to foster global citizenship and institutional innovation through research-inspired teaching and learning, student mobility, connecting our students and staff, and wider advocacy for internationalisation.

Collectively, its 24 members enrol over 830,000 students, employ over 145,000 staff and have approaching 2.5 million alumni. Their collective budgets amount to over US$25bn and they have an annual research grant income of over US$4bn. The network’s purpose is to facilitate collaboration and co-operation between the member universities and to create opportunities for them on a scale that none of them would be able to achieve operating independently or through traditional bilateral alliances.

All Universitas 21 member institutions are research-led, comprehensive universities providing a strong quality assurance framework to the network’s activities.

U21 has a range of key programmes:

  • Teaching and learning – including conferences, a network and a Global Issues Programme
  • Student Experience – embraces student mobility, summer schools, service learning and volunteering
  • Researcher engagement – for early career researchers, joint PhD arrangements and a network of Deans of Graduate Schools
  • Leadership and management – bringing together Presidents, Heads of Administration and other senior managers.

There is also a set of collaborative activities across the consortium including, for example, Water Futures for Sustainable Cities, projects in Health Sciences and work in Education. Beyond this, U21 has taken a distinctive lead by publishing an International Ranking of Higher Education Systems – a development covered in an earlier blog post.

The University of Nottingham gets a lot out of this, particularly student and staff mobility, scholarship opportunities, joint PhDs and benchmarking and sharing good practice as well as the programmes listed above.

So, international networks can offer a lot to members but the challenge for institutions is to exploit fully the benefits which are on offer.

Serious or Celeb? More Honorary Degrees

More Honorary Degree diversions

Detailed investigation of Honorary Degrees down the years has led me to a simple conclusion – almost all recipients fall clearly into one of two categories: they are either serious or celeb. Needless to say, the former don’t get much press coverage so you could be forgiven for thinking that the 90% of recipients who are huge achievers in their field, who may be Nobel prize winners or tremendously distinguished artists or scientists, simply don’t exist because they aren’t, well, just celebrities. Indeed this is what the papers now seem to suggest as they really just don’t get it.

The Independent recently carried a piece in which seemed to misunderstand the honorary element of honorary degrees. This echoes a piece several years ago in the Daily Mail which, without a trace of irony, bemoaned the debasing of the educational currency of honorary degrees as evidenced by the increase in the involvement of celebrities.

So, although there are a few borderlines, by and large I think you can divide the worthy holders of honoraries into serious or celeb. And, having criticised the media for focusing exclusively on the latter, I am going to do exactly the same, because it’s more fun.

A previous post on last year’s round of awards noted the wide range of celebrities who have collected honoraries, from Donald Sinden to Pam St Clement. An earlier piece noted the success of some individuals in accumulating large numbers of honorary awards (although Kermit has still only got the one degree as far as I can tell).

Anyway, the cream of this year’s crop is as follows. You have to say that most of them you would regard as celebrity awards rather than serious. But I am open to challenge on that:

Fabrice Muamba – University of Bolton

Susan Boyle – Queen Margaret University

Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter films) – Leeds Met

June Spencer (Peggy Archer) – here at University of Nottingham

Jools Holland – University of Kent

Walter Smith (former Rangers manager) – Glasgow Caledonian University

 Hilary Devey (Dragons’ Den star) – University Bolton

Michael Eavis – University of Creative Arts (presumably not just for services to the dairy industry)

Ann Widdicome waltzed along to the University of Birmingham

Barbara Dickson – Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Steve Heighway (former Liverpool footballer) – Warwick

Johnny Marr – Salford (actually debatable – definitely celeb but also musical genius)

So, serious or celeb? You decide.

One of the best awards this year though must be to Elbow singer Guy Garvey who was made an honorary Doctor of Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University:

The Bury-born singer was made an honorary Doctor of Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University at a graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Art and Design.

He told the audience that the award means a lot to him and dedicated it to his bandmates, his family and girlfriend, novelist Emma Unsworth.

Guy said: “Because of the band, none of us went to University – well, Pete did a term at Salford until we spent his grant – so this means a lot to me.”

And to finish off, my favourite piece in which Stella McCartney and Lulu Guinness get great coverage here of their recent awards from the University of the Arts London. Lulu Guinness said. “I did not have a formal training in handbag design, so this makes this extra special.”

Roll on next year.

More strange degrees

Odd by degrees

It’s graduation season again and helpfully Huff Post has provided a list of rather strange degrees from the US. Some of these are really rather splendid and include:

Viticulture & Enology: Grape Growing and Winemaking – offered by UC Davis and Cornell University who “take advantage of their ripe location” in providing this degree.

Packaging – Michigan State University offers this one which apparently includes the modules “Packaging with Glass and Metal” and “Packaging with Paper and Paperboard.”

Puppeteering – the University of Connecticut has become “a proud leader in the art of puppeteering” since this course started in 1964.

Comic Art – It seems that Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers a B.F.A in Comic Art. Career options arguably slightly narrow.

Bowling Industry Management and Technology – Delivered by Vincennes University in Indiana, the degree is intended to prepare students for “management of a bowling center, sales and marketing, pro shop operations, and pinsetter mechanics.”

But best of all:

Bagpipes – Since the early 1990s, Carnegie Mellon University has offered a degree in bagpipes.

In an interview with the New York Times in 1990, Marilyn Taft Thomas, head of Carnegie Mellon’s music department stated, “The entire tradition of campus has been to have celebratory bagpiping. It just makes sense for us to acknowledge bagpipes as a legitimate musical instrument.”

This is not the first time this topic has appeared here. A previous post summarised the latest position in the provision of bonkers degrees and earlier items covered similar ground including a zombie course at the University of Baltimore and a course covering Lady Gaga together with a study of Beyonce. Also we previously looked here at the launch of an MA in Beatles Studies and the offer of a degree in Northern Studies as well as offering a podcast on “bonkers or niche” degrees and an MA in horror and transgression at Derby.

It just goes to show. There is a course in just about every subject you care to mention.

Yale-NUS – high stakes higher education in Singapore

A lot is riding on the Yale-NUS development

A very upbeat report from the National University of Singapore on progress in the Yale-NUS partnership:

As the first liberal arts college in Singapore offering a proactive education through residential living and learning right here in the heart of Asia, we are breaking ground on multiple dimensions,” the inaugural President of the College said. The ceremony also symbolically lays the foundation for an inspiring and innovative community of learning, he added.

To align with the School’s educational mission, the Yale-NUS campus architecture will highlight the collaborative nature of the venture through the joint expertise of two world-class architects – Singapore’s Forum Architects and US-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.

Distinctive features such as the syncopated skyline and special materials derived from Yale architecture are married with Asian courtyard landscapes to meld cultures, traditions and styles of Singapore, America and Southeast Asia. The East-meets-West setting will reflect the openness, energy and optimism of the College’s curriculum.

This residential model builds “nested communities” in the Yale tradition of supporting lifelong learning in liberal arts and science by integrating academic, intellectual, social, athletic and artistic life. Three residential colleges, each conceived as a “social home”, will house students and faculty.

The pioneer batch of Yale-NUS students will begin classes from August 2013 at UTown before the new campus officially opens in 2015. The location of the College on the same site is expected to provide opportunities for Yale-NUS undergraduates to interact with the NUS community in co-curricular, sports, the arts and other social settings.

They will undoubtedly have some impressive buildings when the new campus opens. But will the development really break ground in “multiple dimensions” and will the ambitions of the architecture be mirrored in the academic enterprise? We’ll have to wait and see but, with the extensive media coverage of the new college, you would be forgiven for thinking that Yale-NUS had already opened and had thousands of students enrolled and that no other western university had opened a campus in Asia before. I do hope the new venture works and there is certainly enough money and good will behind it to ensure things do come together. However, the hype surrounding Yale-NUS College could mean that expectations are perhaps unreasonably high. And given the forthright views expressed by Yale faculty about issues from academic freedom in Singapore to the impact on their workloads caused by the need to support the new college it could be an interesting couple of years.

From National to Global Universities

A nice piece from David Wheeler in the Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the challenges for universities in going global:

Universities, like companies, may need to make the transformation from being a national brand to being a global one. Siemens, once thought of as a German company, now says that it is “a global powerhouse in electronics and electrical engineering, operating in the industry, energy, and health-care sectors.”

Global brands can be adapted to various local markets, while still staying globally integrated. I just gave away a collection of international Coke cans, consisting of many different shapes and bearing Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish words, among others. But they were all instantly identifiable as Coke cans.

As some universities seek to be global, they often emphasize that a degree in one country will be exactly identical to a degree in another. I’m left wondering if a little more flexibility might be in order.

Human-resources departments may need to rise in importance as universities seek to become more global. The complexities of managing different people in different places are high, and human-resources departments, which are often simply the servants of academic departments at many universities, need to acquire and share their expertise on how to manage a mix of expatriates and local workers in a variety of countries.

I think this flexibility point is well made. Institutions do have to adapt to the environment in which they are operating. Education cannot be entirely context independent. Academic standards do, of course, have to be consistent. So, whilst term dates may be different and the timetable may look a little unusual, the curriculum, learning outcomes, assessment and examinations, admission requirements and academic staff qualifications, to name but a few components, do have to be directly comparable to ensure that the standards of awards and the quality of the student learning experience are maintained. These are fundamental to sustaining the institutional brand.

An earlier post noted the continued growth in branch campus developments by universities. All of the issues faced by global corporations, from maintaining the brand to developing HR operations, are shared by universities looking to grow a presence overseas. But it is very difficult to do this alone:

Lastly, I think that universities can learn from corporations about how to better manage partnerships. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: Universities approaching partners need to think of programs that would benefit both parties. Approaching a computer company and asking for money or machines to take back to the university doesn’t work for the company, without some benefit being offered. Companies have their own problems to solve.

The issue of partnerships is crucial. Any institution looking to establish a genuine global presence is not going to be able to do it alone and will in all likelihood require government backing as well as other partners to help with infrastructure development and navigating through a different policy and legal environment. None of this is straightforward but can be done and does bring rewards. In the long run.

There is an interesting link here to the recent story about the UK Universities Minister’s discussions with Goldman Sachs about ways to support offshoring opportunities for British HEIs. Branch campuses are not the solution to domestic economic travails but they are a serious option for universities looking to establish a global brand. Although there are many challenges associated with such developments, the benefits are significant.

Scottish Universities Challenged

Improving governance or constraining autonomy?

An earlier post covered the outcomes of a review of governance in Scottish universities and reported a number of concerns about what looked like far-reaching and extremely interventionist proposals.

Following this review the Scottish government has now indicated its response and, according to the Scotsman, it looks set to adopt many of the recommendations:

THE Scottish Government has unveiled a radical shake-up of the country’s universities and colleges.

• Education secretary Mike Russell unveils plans for a shakeup of pay and quotas

• Labour’s education spokesman Hugh Henry likened the plans to a ‘power grab’

• Scotland’s colleges currently undergoing mergers following earlier plans to save money and prevent duplication of courses

Education secretary Mike Russell said he had accepted “virtually all” the recommendations of a review of university governance, which called for elected chairs, quotas for female board members and curbs on the pay of high-earning principals.


Universities Scotland has sought to respond in a measured fashion to this development. The Scotsman carries the piece by Alastair Sim:

The von Prondynski review set out a range of affirmations and challenges for the sector. Some of these are matters of public policy or of legislation, and it’s important that universities and government keep talking to find ways forward which will genuinely improve the effective and responsive governance of Scottish universities. We welcome the recognition in the minister’s statement that this will be an evolutionary process which may include adaptation of the original proposals. Let’s use the time between now and proposed legislation to make sure we are getting things right.

Let’s hope they do keep talking. The review recommendations do, on the face of it, seem to represent significant challenges to institutional autonomy in Scotland and offer not insubstantial increases in the bureaucratic burden on universities. Serious consideration needs to be given to whether these proposals will really improve governance and institutional success or, as many fear, will in fact limit the ability of Scottish universities to deliver their missions.

A new world ranking of universities

What we’ve all been waiting for…

Yes, it’s another new world ranking. This time from the previously  unheard of Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) from Saudi Arabia. The website offers little information about the organisation but we do know that the US has the lion’s share of the top 100 places:

The distribution of top 100 institutions among countries is as follows: USA (58), England (7), France (5), Japan (5), Israel (4), Switzerland (4), Canada (3), Germany (3), Australia (2), Netherlands (2), Denmark (1), Finland (1), Italy (1), Norway (1), Scotland (1), South Korea (1), and Sweden (1).

The detailed methodology is also available on the CWUR website. Anyway, the Top 10 is as follows:

Top 10

  1. Harvard
  2. MIT
  3. Stanford
  4. Cambridge
  5. Caltech
  6. Princeton
  7. Oxford
  8. Yale
  9. Columbia
  10. Berkeley

And the UK placings in the Top 100 are:

4 Cambridge

7 Oxford

28 Imperial

31 UCL

60 Edinburgh

76 Manchester

97 Nottingham

98 Bristol

So, overall not that dissimilar from the SJTU Academic Ranking of World Universities or the QS table. Will it gain a niche in the rankings market? Time will tell but at first sight it doesn’t seem to be sufficiently distinctive to attract a major profile.

Olympic Torch visits University of Nottingham

Olympic Torch at Jubilee Campus

The Olympic Torch passed through the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus on Friday 29 June. As a special tribute to the Torch relay and for one day only, the University dressed up the Aspire sculpture…