Over the last number of years the publication of the time higher education University rankings has prompted a veritable orgies of introspection amongst Irish higher education analysts and participants. Once again the news is not great, defined here as being Irish universities slumping further in the rankings. Trinity’s ranking has fallen from 76 to 117, while UCD has fallen from 94 to 159. In the listing of top 100 reputable universities Irish do not figure. Perhaps the reason is that as admitted we have adopted a policy here of trying to achieve adequacy across all rather than focus on excellence in some universities. Spreading the cake thinly gives poor returns in most government investments.
However, it’s not really about that I want to talk. There’s an interesting article today in the Guardian by Simon Jenkins. His basic point is that universities have become too defensive in relation to research, and too enmeshed in what he calls a “faustian pact”. His analysis and his points are complex, and to some extent are grounded in the experience of United Kingdom, but have sent to a general discussion around what the role should be of universities in the 21st-century. We see for example Mix, the online MIT initiative, the much-touted “success” of the Stanford course on programming, which attracted 160,000 students when it went online and which has spawned a new model of education/pedagogy, Udacity. This, along with other disruptive approaches such as that taken by the Khan Academy, or the really exciting new development by the technology provider TED, should concentrate the minds of university academics in Ireland and elsewhere as to what they are and should be doing for the 21st-century. Should they concentrate on teaching, or on research, and how best should they position themselves to do that?
Universities exist, and have existed for hundreds of years, to do a number of things. Although we typically think of universities as giving degrees, that is by no means the sole role that they do, could, or in my opinion should, play. Universities exist to certify acquired knowledge, via the granting of degrees; they also however exist to provide people with networks, and to provide a public good in the form of the more educated population, and via the much maligned system of tenure to provide a caste or group which should, by being immune from the threat of dismissal on foot of unpopularity of opinion, be able to hold up a mirror to society and societies actions and invite them to reflect.
Signing up for an online course from MIT may well allow you to gain knowledge. But even the best online providers are still struggling with how to effectively certify that that knowledge has been acquired by a specific person in a specific format over a specific time period. Furthermore, while online networks can be powerful, there is no substitute for face-to-face, human-to-human, interaction and discussion around shared problems and towards seeking shared solutions. People are social animals. While there is a very superficial attraction to the idea of running only those courses which “are economic”, the reduction ad absurdum of this would be to offer only those courses which are a point in time deemed attractive to a particularly large enough group of people. This would result in an education version of the corn-hog or cobweb cycle well known to generations of introductory economics students: people flock to ‘hot’ courses, they become a glut on the market, the course becomes less valuable, it closes, the skill set wanes, and the cycle starts again. If we wish to get the most out of our universities, via network and social good elements, then we must not only allow require that universities teach courses which, right now, might not be terribly attractive to individuals, but which lay the foundations through networks or through” education” for further societal advancement. Thus we need to cross subsidies courses and areas.
In other words, universities need to think about going back to their basics. The certification of knowledge needs to be disaggregated. Knowledge consists of a process, as well as an outcome. If I want to find somebody who has really good particular technical skills then I am more likely to find them employed by and certified by a professional organization than I am to find them straight out of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. It is in the universities that people should learn how to think, how to acquire and internalize knowledge, as well as perhaps acquiring and demonstrating some certain specified skills, those skills should be mostly about the process. Technical, operational type, skills are perhaps best achieved by commercially focused organizations, which may or may not be attached universities, which can rapidly respond to changing industry and social needs, but which build upon a cadre of people with a proven ability to take on board complex tasks quickly.
To my mind this is where research in universities comes to play. If we consider postgraduate courses in finance, an area with which I have some understanding, the reality is that even the best Masters degrees (and this of course in Ireland is the Trinity College MSc in finance, uniquely triple accredited and chock-full of pedagogic innovation) produces graduates with a broad range of knowledge across a variety of finance and banking domains. The students are highly sought-after, but the reality is that the vast majority of them that will continue on working in the finance and banking field will obtain further vocational qualifications. These qualifications might be chartered financial analyst, accounting qualifications, qualifications around back and middle office processing, qualifications around portfolio management, in a fund administration role etc. Like any good business school postgraduate programme the courses are taught by a combination of academic and clinical faculty. These provide complimentary but distinctly different inputs into the intellectual formation of the students. We are lucky in that we have extremely high quality, professionally qualified, industry embedded clinical faculty, who teach courses that are highly rated by the students. For the most part however these courses are optional, in that they allow students to choose them, and they are typically focused on narrow industry facing aspects of finance. These take it as read that the students have taken the core “academic” courses taught by the faculty. It is an ideal synergy operating on using the abilities of students to learn, which hopefully they have achieved the academic faculty, and applying them to ever increasingly focused technical/full facial/industry focused courses. Of course there is no clean break, no clear blue water, no magical red line that divides these two areas, as academic faculty teach technical skills and clinical faculty teach process learning skills, but the weight of the pedagogic effort lies more on one side or the other.
In my opinion if faculty are not research active then we cannot effectively show students how knowledge in their field moves forward. One of the big issues that we addressed in my corporate finance course at the masters was what do we do if we have no risk-free rate of return. The concept of a risk-free asset has been pretty much core too much of modern finance. And for a very long time this was taken as being the appropriate local sovereign bond, perhaps adjusted if you’re in an emerging market situation. But there is a considerable body of experience, and of research, which now shows of course that perhaps even in developed markets this is not an appropriate assumption to make. If I’m not involved in research around international finance, then I’m not sure I’m best placed to address these issues. Similarly, and again in a corporate finance situation, there is a body of research, to which I have and am continuing to contribute, on how the theories of corporate finance do or do not map to small and medium enterprises. If I’m teaching investments, it’s useful, I think, that I have some experience in researching on alternative investments such as Gold, wine etc.
Research contains three elements. Firstly you have to read an enormous and broad range. For example, if one really in my view wants to be well up with what’s happening in modern behavioral finance you now have to be reading not just economics but also psychology, biology, and neuroscience. Secondly you have to apply the questions and skills to a question that you have posed. This isn’t easy, as you have to find a question, or an issue, which is not already been researched to death.
Finally you have to submit your findings to some other external organization or body, and this is where many academics fail to complete the task. Academic rejection is the norm : many top journals reject 90% or more of submissions, many conferences the same. While it is not hard to eventually get published ( but beware of the vast and growing number of ‘academic’ self publishing and vanity journals) it is hard and time consuming and frequently dispiriting to get published in a decent journal. To me being research active is not simply about during the first two, which I think most academics do and do quite well. Being research active involves closing the deal, and having the courage and conviction to submit your findings to external scrutiny. The first level of external scrutiny is to present these findings at a workshop, or ideally at an international conference. Why international? The reality is that in small communities there is always a danger of consensus, and to get a true critique of your work requires that you reach out beyond your comfort zone. The advancement of research can be considered to be like the genetic evolution of a population, with too small a pool of contributors it eventually becomes inbred. Finally therefore the objective should be to publish this somewhere. Research that never sees the light of day cannot be judged. Again many academics in my experience seem content to see their research findings published in the proceedings of conferences. But there is a qualitatively significant difference between the typical rigor of peer and external review as applied to conference presentations, even if subsequently published, than there is to book chapters, and there is another leap from book chapters to even the lower tier of internationally recognized journals.
So research in universities, by the academic faculty, should in my view be seen not as something extraneous, something magical above and beyond teaching, but as an absolutely intertwined piece of what it means to be a scholar teacher. While there are superb teachers who are not research active, this is down more to the fact that they have spent decades honing their skills, as well as being possessed of the mysterious spark that makes a great teacher stand out from a good teacher. It is in my experience and opinion better to have the majority, the great majority, of academic faculty research active, skilled in modern pedagogic issues, bringing their research to bear upon the teaching and taking from their teaching issues back into their research.