June 13, 2013

Learn from Met record or get stuck on repeat

How well acquainted is Michael Shattock with London Metropolitan University? (“‘The best board I ever sat on’”, 30 May.) In drawing parallels between HBOS and the university, Shattock quotes Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, as stating that London Met in the period 2003‑09 was marked by governance, managerial and operational failures “unprecedented” in higher education. He also quotes the review led by former University of Kent leader Sir David Melville, commissioned by the institution to investigate what had gone wrong, which found “a highly centralised and dictatorial executive led by the vice-chancellor, which was incapable of listening to what was going on in the university”.

The Melville Review recommended that London Met’s culture and its board of governors desperately needed to change. This does bear comparison to the position at HBOS.

However, leaving aside the widely reported matter of a staff governor, a Unison branch chair and a highly regarded professor of industrial relations being suspended by London Met earlier this year, plus the non-availability of minutes for recent meetings of the institution’s board of governors, it is also worth noting other problems at the university today.

In 2009, the Melville Review specifically indicated that “funding completion” was not included on London Met’s “risk register” and that the vice-chancellor, the university secretary and members of the executive group had failed to clearly present such risks to the board of governors and board committees. But last year there was no reference on the risk register of any potential difficulties with a partnership agreement between London Met and private institution the London School of Business and Finance, nor with the sponsorship of international students that might or might not have been linked to that partnership (which has now been dissolved).

Shattock is right to draw parallels between HBOS and London Met, but the real insight is that the lessons flagged up by inquiries already completed must be learned there and elsewhere. Governing boards must listen and act on the advice and information offered by staff and recognised trade unions, not just poorly performing university executives.

If lessons are not learned, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

Cliff Snaith
London Metropolitan University’s University and College Union branch

Mark Campbell
UCU London Met

Workload overload

When I read “Eight days a week” (6 June) I was particularly struck by the account of Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, who said that in order to make up for the hours he spent with his children in the evenings and at weekends, he sometimes started work at 3am, as well as Alice White, the PhD student who confessed to trying to take “at least a half-day off a week”. The article also points out the striking “lack of resentment felt about what people in most walks of life would regard as an intolerably skewed work/life balance” among those interviewed.

I would agree that academia is not a “normal” 9 to 5 job. It is rare for academics to be able to switch off and many are permanently attached to email, read journal articles for fun and regularly put in long hours. Many don’t take the holiday to which they are entitled. In that sense, academia, particularly research, is definitely a vocation.

I know many people who have working patterns similar to those described in the article and who are happy (or at least not unhappy) with their working lives. However, in my day-to-day life as an academic and head of department, I meet plenty of people at all levels who are increasingly less prepared to put up with all this. They struggle daily to be fully engaged members of their families as well as academia. Brilliant young researchers leave the sector because they view the celebration of workload overload as inconsistent with their personal aims and goals. Newly appointed scholars find themselves under pressure to work 24/7 and to be excellent at all aspects of academic life in order to stand a chance of promotion.

Of course, this celebration/acceptance of long working hours is nothing new. A former head of department is reputed to have told a colleague that if they were in the office fewer than 40 hours a week, they had better make sure they were “really good” hours. I turned down one job offer partly because in that working culture, 60-hour weeks were the norm (it is interesting that said department was overwhelmingly male). Around the same time, I spent six weeks working in a public research institution and was struck by how most people finished work at 6pm, went home and did something else. For the first week I felt lost in the evenings, but I quickly recovered. I now look back at that time with fond memories. I also produced as much science during that period as at any other.

I was disappointed therefore that the article did not include some examples of academics who do not buy into the eight-days-a-week culture and yet still succeed. In reality, while the pressure to work all hours is indeed intense, it is not the only way to progress in academia. While some people undoubtedly work well like this and enjoy doing so, many are more productive when they work fewer hours and have a more balanced life.

We cannot afford to lose creative and talented people from the sector through the perpetuation of the 24/7 working culture as the only model.

Eleanor Highwood
Professor of climate physics
University of Reading

Home truths

Christopher Phelps argues for the benefits of immigration, but in the wider labour market, as Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has observed, migration of unskilled labour leads to lower wages for unskilled workers in the developed world (“Increase the volume of expert voices to answer UKIP’s sound and fury”, Opinion, 6 June).

What is the picture in the UK higher education sector? What should our priority be? Should it be to focus on raising revenue by recruiting overseas students, or should UK universities have as their main purpose the higher education of UK students?

In effect, the current strategy is to focus on recruiting overseas students and to limit access domestically by imposing greatly increased tuition fees. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the strategy is working. The total number of students in the UK sector fell by 0.2 per cent from 2010-11 to 2011-12, while the number of overseas students rose by 1.6 per cent. The overall decrease was due entirely to a decline in the number of UK students.

Surely we should prioritise the recruitment of home students. This would encourage more of our young people to develop their talents to the utmost and provide this country with the educated young people we need for our future.

Will Podmore
The British School of Osteopathy

Christopher Phelps fails to appreciate the irony of his comment as a US citizen that migration from Eastern Europe, being a matter of European Union policy, is “beyond the [UK] government’s capacity to control it”.

Wasn’t there a country a long while ago that fought a war against foreign control of its domestic policies? Now I remember: the American Revolution against British rule.

Vincent Barnett

Outdated advice

It is no secret that many business schools, including my own, use the Association of Business Schools’ Academic Journal Quality Guide to determine scholarly performance. Indeed, the publication states that it is “designed primarily to serve the needs of the UK business and management research community” by providing “an indication of where best to publish” to secure tenure, promotion and other rewards. Yet the most recent edition, Academic Journal Quality Guide: Version 4, was unveiled in 2010 and no update has been published since.

The ABS stated that a new version would be released in 2012, but this has now been delayed until 2014. Quite why publication has been pushed back until after the research excellence framework one can only guess. Are we to believe that there have been no changes to the journal rankings since 2010? Rumours are rife that some have been promoted and others relegated.

As an early career researcher, the Guide is supposed to help me “to decide what to read and where to publish” to advance my career. In fact, the first function it sets for itself is to help “early career researchers or…researchers transferring between disciplines/sub-fields or embarking on cross- or interdisciplinary research” to identify the top-quality journals in their fields. But how can such an outdated list meet these aims?

I am as critical of ranking lists as the next researcher, but I am also keen to have a career. The outdated Guide means that there may well be researchers who currently feel secure with their output, perhaps having been awarded tenure, promotion or other rewards, who find that it is quickly downgraded when the new list is published. Equally, early career researchers like me do not know if the top-ranked journals we are submitting to or reading really are top any more.

I now find myself trendspotting rather than relying on such antiquated advice.

Robert Cluley
Lecturer in marketing
Nottingham University Business School

Great maths, not masters

I am writing in response to Brian Sewell’s “Every picture tells a history” (23 May). I am well qualified to do so as I am a 58-year-old professor of electronic engineering who has just completed a degree in the history of art. I read the article just after completing my final examination (the results of which I await nervously).

I am happy to concur that the history of art is not a non-subject and that it does offer significant challenges to overcome and involves a lot of hard work. However, I disagree with most of the rest of what Sewell has to say.

Of course, I can only comment based on my experiences of studying at the University of Reading, but in the module on Raphael covered in the final exam, we were expected to know the differences between the Old and New Testament, to discuss who Ovid and Dante were and what they did, to be able to cope with Italian words, plus many other challenges Sewell implies are no longer posed. It would have been helpful, but not essential, to have been able to read some of the original texts in Italian, but I doubt if many British students could have done that even in the halcyon days of the 1950s.

Sewell’s conclusion, that the history of art should be studied in preference to mathematics, is muddle-headed to say the least. He has argued directly from the particular (his own experience) to the general without considering any other facts. For the overwhelming majority, maths offers a much firmer foundation for life than art history. In narrow employment terms, studying maths does not block any avenues, whereas studying the history of art cuts off most. In terms of life skills, an elementary knowledge of statistics and probability, for example, is much more important than an appreciation of the great masters.

I disagree with Michael Gove on almost everything, but I am certain that he is right to emphasise the importance of everyone having a firm foundation in maths.

Chris G. Guy
Professor of electronic engineering
School of Systems Engineering
University of Reading

Cast neural net wider

Regarding “Neuron firing and hiring” (Opinion, 30 May). There is much to be learned from neuroscience, although the danger lies in extracting bits of information and extrapolating from them as if they imply the whole (much like the blind men and the elephant).

Many neuroscience advocates (particularly in the management consulting business rather than the scientists themselves) view all that they see through this rather reductionist lens. They make pronouncements disregarding the weight of evidence and practice that preceded them. It is as if the word “neuroscience” now suffices to grant newfound credibility to all that falls within its orbit.

Eugene Fernandez
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

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