Monday, 14 December 2015

Study Tour Reflections: John Baker

And now over to John Baker for his reflections on the Study Tour....

I found participating on the tour a fascinating and rewarding experience, and it more than delivered on the expectations I had in advance.

I was really impressed by the cordiality and candour shown to us by all of the institutions we visited, and I think this spirit of co-operation which exists within Higher Education is one of the things that I think makes a career in HE Management and Administration such a rewarding one.
Some general reflections on the institutions that we visited.

I was struck by the lack of tangible power distance presented by the staff we met, hierarchies did not seem to be referred to hardly at all, and I was struck by the warm sense of connection between colleagues who worked in very different parts of the Organisation. As David mentioned at our tour wrap up meeting, “No one showed us an Organisation Chart!”

One interesting example of this cross institutional co-operation.  The Earth & Life Sciences department at VU Amsterdam was in early stages of a merger with the University of Amsterdam, but in the end it didn’t go ahead because of a campaign by their students. However the subject is still taught jointly with students being taught by academics from both institutions, and any funding allocations being distributed in a ratio. (which can change from year to year in an unplanned way, as Dutch Universities are not able to reject any applicant who has met the entry criteria for that course!)

The quality and presentation of the buildings we visited were very impressive.  Now I know from personal experience that you don’t normally bring visitors ‘below stairs’, but I was really struck by how the buildings we passed through or met colleagues in felt more often like cultural institutions, like the Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre or the shiny HQs of an architect's practice.  They had a very spacious feel, and also included much space clearly designed and designated for student interaction and activity, so that one was immediately struck by student activity without having to enter a classroom or a library. This seemed quite different to the gloomy corridors and dated concrete boxes I have encountered at many UK institutions. And there was a patent lack of security barriers and turnstiles, with discrete access readers on key doors providing a less confrontational way of controlling access, although many buildings seemed open to all.

One other thing that I found inspiring from visiting these campuses, was how the institutions seemed to visually celebrate their history, and the achievements of those who have studied with them, in a way that was easily tangible to foreign visitors, and also used the work of artists, and of their students to make their buildings and campuses more attractive and engaging spaces to inhabit.

I was also surprised that there were not more UK students choosing to study in the Netherlands, bearing in mind that the fees are only e2000 a year, and the standard of English spoken by virtually everyone we met was outstanding.

I hadn’t realised that it was only recently because of the Bologna process that the Netherlands had moved to a Bachelors plus Masters system, and most institutions reported that it was still quite rare for Dutch students not to carry on to complete their Masters, although increasingly those looking to enter into an academic career are now starting to look to complete their Masters elsewhere (if not abroad).

I, along with Andrew, was taking a lead in reporting on the theme of Employability for the tour:

Some key reflections in regard to this were surprise to learn that this area has taken greater prominence in organisational priority of late in part due to the poor ratings and feedback provided by international students who had come to study in the Netherlands with higher expectations around support and services in this regard.

Visibility of service was a key priority for most organisations, although the strength of local academic management in organisational process presented challenges for delivery of customised services and support across the institution.

The Dutch equivalent of the DLHE survey takes place 18 months to a year after the courses have completed, which I couldn’t help but feel would be a preference to the 6 months period in the UK.

I look forward to sharing more in the tour report in due course!

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Tour Reflections: Marion Malcolm

Marion Malcolm now gives her reflections on the study tour...

So it is now St Andrew Day (30 November) and 2 weeks since the end of the AUA study tour to the Netherlands and Belgium.  Normal work and life have taken over since I got back but I am still constantly reflecting on what we learned and the people we met – and I shall do that for some time to come.  I have also been boring/inspiring all my colleagues and family with what we did and the tremendous welcome we got from the Universities we visited.  I will be giving a presentation to our local AUA group on 18 January so hope to inspire University of Aberdeen colleagues to take part in future study tours.  I have also contacted our Erasmus office to offer my services to encourage students to take part in the scheme (we always welcome more students to Aberdeen under the Erasmus programme than we send abroad). 

Ruth and I will be pulling together the text for the research theme for the study tour so that is definitely on our “to do” list before we finish for the Christmas break.  Trying to think about the differences and similarities in research between the UK and the Netherlands and Belgium is not difficult.  We spend a lot of time in the UK measuring or trying to measure what we undertake in terms of research income and outputs and what the impact of universities is – and significant funding follows these metrics.  In the Netherlands and Belgium, staff tend to be “doing” rather than “saying what they do” although I wonder how long that can last for.  They already undertake formal reviews (by an international panel) of their research every 6 years and impact (known as valorisation) is measured so it seems that they are moving towards the UK model.  All of the universities we visited had excellent international reputations and networks so some food for thought there. 

The University of Antwerp was most similar to the University of Aberdeen in terms of teaching and research profile and numbers of students and staff so that was interesting for me personally.  Although with 9 campuses they certainly have their work cut off coordinating everything (Aberdeen only has 2).  Antwerp is a very cosmopolitan city, has a very large port and is also the diamond capital of the world – sadly we didn’t get any free samples.
On a personal note, I would like to say a big thanks to Els for her outstanding planning and coordination of the trip (I am sure she felt like the Pied Piper at times making sure that we were all on the right train at the right time!) and to Andrew for managing the tour blog. 

Tour Reflections: David Law

Now in this series of reflections by members of the team, David Law gives his observations...

Since we returned to the UK I have been thinking about the people we met and the places we visited.
Higher Education in the Netherlands is much more regulated by the state than in the UK, and this appears to be so also in the Flemish area of Belgium (judging from the one institution we visited there).  But this does not seem to stifle initiative.  Indeed TU Delft must be one of the most innovative universities I have ever had the pleasure to visit, whether in the UK or overseas.

What struck me, in particular, about TU Delft was the sense of adventure and common purpose.  The whole team found our meeting with Anka Mulder to be inspirational.  Since April 2013 she has been the Vice-President for Education and Operations at TU Delft.  Anka was promoted internally to this post, in a technical university and with no STEM background.  She is a champion for internationalisation and accessibility of education.

We asked her about the development strategy at TUD and her reply was highly revealing.  “We do not have a strategy for growth.  We have a strategy for quality.”  If you achieve excellence the university has strength and will grow.

After the tour concluded, I was able to find more about Anka Mulder.  She studied History at the University of Groningen where she later lectured in International Relations. In 1996 she took up a post as head of department at the ROI (the Dutch Institute for Public Administration that provides civil service training).  At TUD Anka served, from 2004, for nine years as Director of Education and Student Affairs.  She has always been an energetic supporter of open learning (including MOOCs).  

Anka Mulder’s philosophy is to work within networks to enable the excellence of the education at TUD to reach as many people as possible. “We can’t do that on our campus [because of the obvious limitations] so we use MOOCs.”  Now TU Delft has 75,000 participants registered for its MOOCs.
Reputational gains are a powerful motivation for this development. TU Delft has joined a network of about 30 top universities and schools from all over the world (the edX initiative that includes Harvard).  “This means that the degrees of our students increase in value.” 

This has not been problem-free!  The Executive Board and, in general, the professional staff were really supportive right from the start (eight years ago).  “As for the faculty, some people were immediately enthusiastic about the possibilities of open and online initiatives. But for other staff it took some time.”

TUD started with those who were enthusiastic, and if people were not interested …?  “Well, that was fine with us. What we see now is that the interest in what we do online is growing rapidly.”  But there are still challenges to overcome.

“My University is a warm supporter of openness. However, at the same time, we have to make ends meet. We have to find a business model for online and open Education.  Things cost money. This is a big challenge. What we can’t do is to have our registered students on campus pay more to make it possible for all other students, from around the world, to get a higher education for free. We have to find a good business model.”

Open and online education will clearly have a massive impact on higher education, although it is impossible to know what these effects will in the future.  TU Delft is a university that wants to be at the forefront of change.

Anka Mulder says that the University has to develop a three-year strategy for online education every six months!  “This world is changing so fast. … Every six months we have to speed up otherwise we are not going fast enough.” And, of course, it is all in English!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Tour Reflections: Andrew Tuson

In the first of the series of tour reflections, I will look at what is like to participate and why you should consider joining the next one...

As I lead the Poland tour and was fortunate to be able to join in with this one, I would like to look at what it is like from a tour leader and participant viewpoint.

First of all, thanks to Els for doing such an excellent job as tour coordinator. I know how exhasuting it was leading Poland and she lined up a series of outstanding visits.

So what's involved in coordinating/leading the tour? First you need to get a team together from the AUA membership and invite applications. Once you have a team then you decide themes as a group. Though the team may have contacts (and will help) the coordinator will need to set up an iternary of visits, book hotels (as needed) and arrange/plan in-country logistics (usually this means trains and knowing how to get from hotels to HEIs).

There is a lot of materials availabe from past coordinators who are hapy to pass it on (and give advice).

Writing up is hard work, but rewarding. On the Poland tour I was fortunate that the team were excellent note takers. So I able to integrate their detailed notes into a narrative for the report. That said, the AUA does also provide help with production, etc. Of course the team is responsible for the content and analysis.

We are getting started on the Netherlands/Belgium report. I sure it will be every bit as good.

On the other hand, being a participant is still hard work. Apart from the personal logistics, you will take part in the discussions, and of course take notes, engage with research into the themes and contribute to parts of the final report.

You will gain experience of dealing with professionals from different HE systems.  You will make contacts. There is in every visit a 'jaw drop' moment when you find something utterly surprising. If you have not written public reports before, then you will learn a lot during the writing process.

Both roles will provide gains for both you and your employer no matter what stage of your career you are at. So if you really want your preconceptions challenged, meet some really great HE professionals and learn more than you could ever expect in a week - join or lead a AUA study tour.

Just wait for the next call. Or even contact the AUA to volunteer your ideas and services?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Reflections on the Study Tour: A Prelude

Everyone in the team will be presenting their reflections on the Study Tour. But first here is a fitting prelude by David Law that reflects on the social role of HE...

The last day of the Study Tour was spent at the University of Antwerp.  This was the day that Paris experienced the atrocities that are bound to challenge our willingness to promote cultural inclusiveness in European universities.  Ten days later the peace of Brussels is very much under threat and the cities within its vicinity, including Antwerp and Ghent (where the Davis Cup finals will be held), feel the impact.

At the University of Antwerp there is a compulsory module, World Views, for all third undergraduate students taught by staff of the Centre Pieter Gillis. This Centre is focussed on religious diversity and on the social position of religion in society.  It is named after Pieter Gillis (1486-1533) an Antwerp humanist and friend of Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More.  Unfortunately, because there was so much to pack in to a half-day visit to the University, we did not have the chance to meet colleagues from the Centre.  But we were told that all the Flemish universities make provision of this kind (for the development of ethical and spiritual awareness of students).

Does any British university require all undergraduates to take such a course, especially at an advanced stage of their degree?

Friday, 20 November 2015

Friday 13th November (Day 4): Antwerp

Friday the 13th is considered by some unlucky, but then were are heading to somewhere that is making me hungry just thinking about it: really good beer, waffles, chocolate and amazing chips - yes!

As you can tell, I put on weight whenever I am here (I cannot speak for the rest of the team!)...

Anyway, after a 2 hour train journey we are in the capital of the Flanders province of Belgium, Antwerp. It is renowned for being the world's leading diamond city where over 70% of all diamonds are traded.

The University of Antwerp (Universiteit Antwerpen) was established in 2003, following the merger of the RUCA, UFSIA and UIA institutes, whose roots go back to 1852. As of 2014, the University of Antwerp ranks as 170th globally according to Times Higher Education, 205th according to the QS World University Rankings and in the 301-400th place range according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities.

We are met at the station and driven to one of their outer campuses where much of the adminstration is based. The University was formed by merger, so has a presence on multiple sites.

We then enjoyed and debated a number of excellent presentations on employabilty, internationalisation and research management. Like in the Netherlands, the system here manages to maintain a high consistent standard across its universities.

It became clear, despite a common language, that there are significant policy differences. Again both systems often approach issues in a different way to the UK. The ability to triangulate in this manner has made this study tour quite unique.

In the evening, the University was kind enough to to take us to the University Club where we had a fantastic meal that ended with University branded Belgian chocolates.

So all in all a fitting end to a great study tour.

As always, three observations of the day's conversations.
  • As in the Netherlands, Internationalisation is a strategic activity; though there are some constraints, e.g. limits on what courses can be offered in English, esp. at Bachelors level.
  • The research universities have in place reasonably mature employabilty practices as it appears does the vocational/applied HE sector (Belgium has a binary system).
  • Research funding has both competitive aspects as well as an allocative compnnet based on simple metrics.