‘League tables come with structural limitations’
With increasing pressure on disciplines to add practical coursework, applied social sciences allows traditional research methods to come together with new age innovation. Tim Blackman, vice Chancellor, Middlesex University, shares his views on challenges faced by university leadership in general and the social science discipline in particular in the wake of growing unemployability globally. Edited excerpts:
How do you respond to the need to integrate theory with research and innovation?
Middlesex University is a comprehensive university with a full range of subjects with a focus on applied perspectives acrosa faculties. Research enriches our teaching and applied research connects students with real world challenges and concerns. Our strategy is to ensure research has an impact either on business, social policy, environment as the university’s ethos is to improve for the better. Given that research across UK has become an open enterprise, we can all draw from each others’s research projects more easily now. There is no separation between research and teaching which are aimed at the same activity that is learning with a common goal of problem solving. Sometimes social science is criticized for being too critical or not being applied enough. However, critical thinking is important too. Businesses and societies need innovation and new thinking and critical thinking can be a source for new ideas.
We also focus on professional doctorates which include practice-based study, where curriculum is designed around a senior professional’ or manager’s area of practice. Thus, the discipline is linked to one’s occupation. The doctorate will help the professional take forward their thinking in an area where they have substantial experience.
Academic integration and synergy across departments is a challenge. How do you achieve that?
This is a challenge as academics across the world tend to identify most with their respective discipline and may even think that their discipline is for a lack of better word superior that the other. There can be an unsaid hierarchy among subjects that may prevent academics from borrowing from each other. This is one of the reasons we are moving to larger faculties and smaller schools so that larger units can allow for greater interpretation among colleagues from diverse disciplines. While identifying with your discipline is important, it is also important to know a discipline’s limitation and be open to the best possible way of solving a problem. As university leaders, it is upon us to create a conducive environment for multidisciplinary research. For instance, internal funding is a good incentive where you make it necessary to involve more than two departments. Funding depends on your ability to get more people to engage with each other. For instance, several science and engineering grants are looking at not just discipline specific but scientific proposal as a lot of big changes in the world today cannot be explained without understanding social processes and individual behavior. Newer programmes with a broader range of modules are another means of multi disciplinarity. Most problems today lie at the intersection of understanding human behavior and technology which require teams source from multiple disciplines. An example we are working on is assistive technologies for the care of older people – using tech at home that enables an old person to live independently longer such as an assistive alarm, smart technology to operate taps, lights or even cooking or care robots who could help with domestic chores. This team w ill require people from sociology and psychology among others to decide whether these technologies will be acceptable to societies.
How does university leadership counter the challenge of mapping quality in research? Are league tables an accurate means of mapping research quality?
League tables certainly come with their owns tructural limitations as none of them, for instance, talk about quality of teaching in an institution. They give an idea of the kind of grade you need to get in, how satisfied students are, how much does the institutuion spend. However these may not directly correlate with quality of research. The teaching excellence framework (TEF) and research excellence framework in the UK are complimentary assessments of the teaching process holistically. TEF results in UK have been different from league tables as they focused on student outcomes. League tables are about academics setting the rules of the game of their own assessment. At this point, universities need to rise to the challenge of inclusive economic growth and are required to make societies better and increase productivity. Details from league tables can answer questions on academic parameters but not help with the pragmatic concerns.