The Swimming Pool Library

Reading this year’s Times Good University Guide I was very pleased to see the library regarded as the most high profile service offered at university. Each University featured in the TH Guide contains positive and negative vox pops by the President of its respective Student Union. Despite what we are constantly told by expert panels, students still place the library at the top of their assessment of a University’s facilities. A respectful note to Vice-Chancellors – swimming pools count for a lot but promote the library and students will flock to your campus.

There are of course as many different kinds of academic library as there are universities. The majority of these are now exceptionally well-designed, welcoming places for large numbers of undergraduates to work either alone or together in groups, and most are filled with leading-edge technology. The candle-lit uyndergraduate library of the 19th Century is gone. So too are the many 1970’s interiors, which was the previous great period of academic library development in Britain. Now, unless the library provides frappe mocha cappuccinos (why is coffee now this complex?), free wireless and vibrantly coloured soft furnishings you might as well not bother opening the doors.

One of the large ‘learning spaces,’ to which these libraries are often referred professionally, that I managed at Nottingham University even had its own dress code. This was let slip by the Student Union President to me in a meeting, and went along the lines of, ‘On Level 1 of the Library you have to have a certain look.’ The students themselves undid all that work we did to widen access to an elite university for students from less privileged backgrounds. I pass no comment.

Regardless of whether a student shops in Hollister or Primark, the library is regarded as easily the most essential building on campus outside the lecture theatre (and more so by some students). Incidentally, although I usually feel left behind in style terms by students, despite immense personal effort, there was one area in which students may remain a little behind the curve themselves. Students do not want eBooks.

It does not matter how many times the argument is made that in order to provide collaborative learning spaces, the physical book stock must give way to technology, students still want to use printed books. An e-licence can provide multiple accesses to a single copy. It can be downloaded anywhere. It can even be bought and used on the most essential piece of equipment a contemporary student owns, their iPhone. None of this alters the demand for print materials.

The considerable achievements of digitisation, particularly of rare materials have transformed most libraries’ ability to support research. Indeed, colleagues working at a senior research level rarely enter most libraries. There are of course exceptions, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Senate House Libraries, University of London. These and a few others retain research and historic collections beyond the reach of current technology. It could be observed that for once, unlike the pervasive use of social networking tools such as Facebook, lecturers are more advanced than students in their employment of technology when it comes to eBooks and digital collections. Or are they?

Reflecting on national strategies in the UK of about ten years ago, I remember a phrase then in common conference use named ‘the hybrid library.’ This phrase has since fallen from professional favour and been generally replaced by ‘the digital library.’ In some cases this has progressed to simply describing a library containing both digital and printed collections as, innovatively, ‘the library.’

Having proposed that those of us of a certain age are ahead of our younger students in at least one field of the web, let me burst, sadly that one remaining bubble. No matter how we rebrand our services as Learning Resource Centres, Collaborative Spaces, Learning Hubs, Knowledge Cafes, Information Commons, Digital Access Rooms or anything else, students still say to each other, ‘I’ll meet you in the library,’ even if it is via Twitter on an iPhone.

For most students in the modern university, as is confirmed again this year in The Times Good University Guide, the library remains not only the most important building on campus (perhaps knocked into a close second by the Union Bar), but also remains a library in the traditional sense.

Of course, the information revolution has not halted, in fact we too easily forget that we are only at its beginning. The use of eBooks will rise in academia just as it has in commercial bookselling. Demand for fast wireless access will increase. Mobile devices will kill-off desktop computing. Social networking will become more academically useful. But all of this will happen in a future where printed materials remain a definitive measure of the value and intellectual status of a University and its Library.

Cambridge University students know that one of the greatest aspects of their university is its 100+ libraries. Everyone knows this. To deny or ignore this fact, repeated again by students themselves in the TH Guide, is to be blind to a future where the library delivers 21st Century technology alongside its high-demand printed textbooks and its medieval manuscripts.

Tails of the Unexpected

There is a strong sense of vocation in some professions, notably the law, medicine, teaching and the church. Others amount to a similar fundamental desire through a particular talent or propensity such as writers, chefs, musicians, sportsmen, designers or dancers. The decision to enter some professions does not usually demand a definitive aptitude or even, a calling. My own profession of librarianship, although not one normally associated with natural gifts or devotional origins, is yet filled with people who would never wish to do anything else.

There are many reasons for this as the library profession is a complex one. It is constructed of highly skilled experts in some fields, for instance bibliographics or rare books whilst also including very senior managerial staff with strategic or financial acumen on the very large scale. It is not a profession with many comparators but the one I always like to employ is that of the police. Librarians are similar to police officers principally in that everyone starts their career at the same point. During their professional lives each member of either profession will find a level at which they operate best. Interestingly this makes for obvious hierarchy at the same time as respect for talent at every level.

I used to think, until today that my strong vocational drive to enter the library profession originated at the age of 13, when I first became a school library assistant (and yes, it was just as cool as it sounds – we even had badges saying ‘Librarian’). Until that is, I talked with my mother this morning.

I had sent her a copy of the latest Senate House Libraries Strategy last week for a file she keeps on my two brothers and I – all three of us do this. I am particularly pleased with the document, as it is a compression of enormous complexity in terms of stakeholders, collections and future priorities. The detail is not important here but it did trigger a fascinating reminiscence from her on the nature of my life-long passion for libraries.

For the record, my continued belief in the power of collections available to share is primarily fueled by my equal conviction that education can alter the direction of people’s lives.

My mother told me that between the ages of one and two and a half she used to take me every fortnight to our local library, which at that time was Stowmarket Library in Suffolk. I can just remember this, especially after my brother was born because he always used to go in a great black pram and I would speed ahead by then on my red tractor with yellow wheels. Incidentally, I have a similar passion for sports cars so you can see where this is going – I rode the tractor so fast and so far that I actually wore the wheels right down to the spokes and it had to be thrown away.

In the local library I was set free, well comparatively anyway. To me at that age this was only a moderately scaled down version of the vast collections I am now Director of in London. There was a seemingly inexhaustive quantity of books. We did always take a good selection apparently but there was one that obsessed me. It was called ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea,’ a simple story of an innocent and vulnerable child and her mother sitting down for tea and cake and, as was clearly common in the south of England in the seventies, being disturbed by a hungry tiger. Fear not though, this couldn’t be further from the perhaps predictable scene of horror one might have expected given the situation. The tiger ate all the cake and then everything else in the kitchen. He then drank all the water in the taps and left, never to be seen again.

My mother estimates, as no request was ever put in at Stowmarket Library (not even a desperate one by her, meaning I could renew it every two weeks), that she must have read this book to me approximately one million times. Additionally, and not a record I am particularly proud of, when my Nana came to visit she was also forced to plough through the tiger’s greedy tale. The agreed estimate for Nana is about ten thousand readings. I apologise to both but I loved that tiger.

My ability to bore parents and grandparents to near madness is however, not the purpose of this story. The tiger stands for the unexpected. In those days, when we had very little money which prohibited visiting bookshops, it was in the library where the unexpected was to be discovered. That the tiger always came to tea in our house is neither here not there; he would not have visited at all had it not been for Stowmarket Library.

People who have grown up with enough money to buy books have no idea how important local libraries are. Many of these people, as is the way of the world choose professions that result in authority. Some of them become MP’s or local councillors. The reason that public libraries are now under attack by this government and its local councils is that they are used by unprofitable members of society; the elderly, the young and the poor. They are easy targets.

Public libraries are of course seen as irrelevant to wage earners, those of working age and, perhaps the childless. Those who can afford to buy books, computers and access to the web cannot understand the position of those that can do none of these things. Anyone proposing the closure of a public library is not only advocating cultural vandalism but is publicly displaying ignorance of how many people in Britain are forced to live.

Finally, the root cause of the current national debt and its related financial crisis needs to be reiterated. Public spending under Labour was high, but it was serviceable. Irresponsible public spending is not the driver for the cuts programme, but rather the use of vast public funds to bail out private sector banks. The people who use public libraries are not to blame for the UK economic downturn, but they are the ones paying for it: literally in terms of the banks and intellectually through library closures.

I needed a public library to find my tiger, to discover and to grow. I chose the library profession because I believe libraries in all their forms make a difference to people’s lives. I also do not believe that amateurs can run them, however well meaning. Cameron wants a ‘big society’ and at the same time orchestrates library closures, or services without professional librarians.

David Cameron and George Osborne come from the kind of families that have their own libraries. How can we expect them to give a tinker’s toss about those for whom without public libraries, the tiger would never come to tea?

National Admissions Policy

The current state of universities is intriguing. For the first time in around fifteen years a purely intellectual education for everyone is being aggressively questioned. Or at least it is in the UK. France and Germany are increasing state funding for young people to learn at the highest level and although there are difficulties, the US system is still healthily based on personal financial outlay.

In the UK for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in some cases long before that, it was accepted that knowledge of classics, philosophy, music, history, art, theology and literature was only required at the summit of society. We have lived for brief periods during widening access initiatives. These are now again narrowing.

Despite many top universities offering bursaries, far more are not doing so. Education in the humanities is returning to the ‘halcyon days of Oxford,’ to appropriate Monty’s recollections in ‘Withnail and I.’ In other words, unless you are relatively rich, in the near future you will be unlikely to attend a good university with top-flight lecturers to learn about something other than science.

In an unexpected twist the UK government has also recently announced that it will be rewarding universities financially for admitting students with AAB or above at A Level. This will make the lives of those students, I understand from any background much easier. They will be gold dust for gold diggers. The reward should be passed to students and will be an enormous incentive to work hard during sixth form or college.

The national admissions policy, (and yes, that is what all these strategies amount to) is being rewritten almost by the week. It is as if, shall we say, the government does not know what it is doing. Surely this cannot be the case? To drop the sarcasm for a second, I do not think it is the case. Government does not purely consist of elected officials but also of unelected ones. If the distracting political wing of government ducks and dives in the firing line of student and professorial snipers, then the administrative advance of the Civil Service is cleverly covered.

What is being created is a university system based on access by achievement. There is considerable support for teaching and research in science, technology, engineering and medicine anyway, and almost all of it goes to the Russell Group of top universities. Over 60% of research funding in these disciplines goes to only those 20 universities from a pool of over 200 institutions. The Russells also account for over 70% of doctoral students, and of those, over 80% are researching in the sciences. It is easy to forget just how much design has already been implemented in UK higher education.

For about ten years a phrase has been used to describe good departments in poor universities: ‘pockets of excellence.’ For the humanities, these pockets are to be expanded in the great institutions through elite admissions policies and closed everywhere else. This for instance, will protect at least in principle, the Department of Music at Queen’s University Belfast and render unsustainable the infamous ‘Meja’ departments in the new universities. The Civil Service has always wanted to do this. It was never comfortable with Blair’s ambition to send 50% of the population to something called a University, regardless of quality or its ability to deliver real prospects for its students. In the coalition it has found a natural partner in the Conservative Party. As a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Democrats I will leave further comment for another post on them. It is ironic though, that the Conservative cloak over Civil Service strategy is to be ‘explained’ (defended) by Simon Hughes MP, a member of the Lib Dems who is forced to act as if he really believes in what the coalition are doing.

The national admissions policy will, as has already been the case be introduced very slowly. It is a drizzle not a thunderstorm. The issue this year concerning the removal of the cap on student fees was a mistake not only because of the policy but because so many people noticed it. And so, many for some time will perform the delicate pirouettes that are also U-turns, such as the AAB initiative.

There have been strong political figures that have managed to steer, or temporarily change the view of the Civil Service. Blair managed it. Thatcher agreed with it but took all the criticism. This is precisely what Cameron is doing, except unlike Thatcher he is chary of attacks. He is the perfect Prime Minister as the Service gets what it wants but avoids the shots.

So what does it want? I think the national admissions policy, which is now free of social inclusion targets, is designed to return the UK to its two-tier education system. There will be a small number of elite universities teaching and researching across all disciplines (ideally for most in the Service this only means two institutions which enjoy rowing – but there are some modern thinkers who accept there might be at least twenty). Beneath these, in every conceivable sense from dining rights to student prospects there will be many more vocational institutions without research but with high student numbers.

The national admissions policy is intended to allow the UK to deliver very high quality research in science and in the humanities in a focused, well-funded environment. Students from poorer backgrounds with strong academic ability will have a place in university, and they are likely to be better supported even than now. Other young people will study trades or increasingly, creative subjects such as design, writing, journalism and art in environments that mark their progress more intuitively than is usually performed in universities by exams.

The policy has been in development since the 1970’s with only the occasional lurch in direction. It has its merits. Only those of strong academic ability will achieve a place at University. Those with equal but different abilities will begin their careers in tailored environments, but without being handed a worthless degree at the end of it.

The question for the political side of government is can they ensure that this is properly funded. France and Germany already have these structures and are increasing investment. The days of social tokenism are over. The national admissions policy will adapt as it always has done. The class issue associated with access to university must be dismissed as irrelevant by support for bright, disadvantaged students. This is an opportunity?

The British Library and UK Higher Education

Changing landscapes

The British Library operates many services that support the Higher Education sector. It now works in a financial climate that is likely to alter fundamentally within the next three to five years as teaching funding for the arts and humanities begins to affect students’ decisions to progress with postgraduate degrees.

The student population is traditionally split into undergraduate, taught postgraduate and research postgraduate communities. Beneath this there are trends in both discipline numbers and concentration of students. In the most recent (January 2010) HEPI\BL report it is observed for instance, that the highest proportion of taught postgraduates are in 1994 Group institutions and are studying business and education courses. Also, that the highest percentage of research postgraduates are in the Russell Group, studying STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects.

The BL highlights its role in HE as one focused on arts and humanities fields, particularly as a named ‘Research Organisation’ status with the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). It should be welcomed that this is seen to be important to the British Library, but qualified that this is a small area in terms of emerging researchers, and one that is likely to be under increasing pressure. The BL role in supporting tenured academic research is perhaps obvious, but could be more clearly promoted.

The role of libraries and information services confirm reports on student numbers and academic activity. For example, the largest research collections and richest scientific information environments are also in the Russell Group whilst the most comprehensive e-learning infrastructures can be found in universities, such as London and the Open University that are delivering the highest numbers of distance-learning courses. Senate House Libraries is delivering both large e-learning content and research collections.

It’s helpful to split the HE sector into areas of engagement where the BL might continue or improve on its partnership with universities and their libraries.

Areas of engagement


· The physical access to the British Library by undergraduate students is welcomed, although it should be better regulated by collection need rather than additional reading space.

· The Hathi Trust in the US is digitising millions of books. Combined with Google this will transform access to standard texts. The BL needs to lead on a UKRR (United Kingdom Research Reserve) for monographs, or similar projects.

· Thematic guides to historic collections at undergraduate level are key to engaging students in considering further study.

· BL curators should seek to present collections and services directly in lecture theatres. Whilst this may seem daunting, it could at least be achieved in the major cities and online.

Taught postgraduates

· Further work should be considered on targeting support for business and corporate engagement, where large numbers of students need advice. The current Business and IP Centre is very valuable.

· The BL should be a presence within course materials where appropriate. A feasibility study could be performed with the OU.

· Technology should enable the Library to be perceived as accessible outside London. One method would be to market BL services inside university libraries and on their VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments).

· Social networking tools are often the ‘peer review’ at this level and the BL could provide greater support to libraries in targeting discipline areas, such as English Studies to create ‘groups’ on known sites such as Facebook.

· Integrating BL services into universities is weak. BL Direct, where journal articles can be ordered needs far more promotion.

· Training days in nations and regions, as well as London would be welcomed.

Research postgraduates

· The EThos service needs further investment, both financially and in purpose. A link could be made to other PhD projects, such as DART-Europe and additionally to social networking to create a community around content.

· UKRR is one of the BL’s recent achievements in collaboration with universities. The opportunity to prove the value of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), investment here should not be lost – these are efficiencies despite high funding.

· The National Deposit Act, which allows published materials to be acquired by Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin and the National Libraries should be reviewed. This is needed to fully understand its cost, not least in terms of storage and to establish its relationship to mass digitisation projects now and in the future.

· The research landscape has always included cross-sectoral work. This could be made much clearer, even in London. An agreed strategy for research collections in libraries, archives, museums and galleries is urgently required in the capital to respond to diminishing funding.

· The research provision roles of the BL, Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, UCL, KCL and Senate House, as the seven largest ‘Golden Triangle’ libraries should be clearly and innovatively restated.

Academic researchers

· BL could be more vocal on the Affordable Subscriptions to Periodicals (ASPI) initiative through RLUK (Research Libraries UK). The UK HE sector spends 10% of QR (research) funding on journal subscriptions, but this is an international problem and would benefit from National Library support.

· A process whereby the major research libraries could bring BL curators in early on research proposals at their universities would be timely.

· The School of Advanced Study, Senate House Libraries and the five current nationally funded libraries (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, SOAS and Manchester) have roles beyond their institutions. A seminar towards greater coordination would be welcomed.

· Digitisation of materials is critical. There is little coordination on this.

· JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) is changing to a member subscription service. There is an opportunity for the BL to play a greater role in web developments.

Essential role

The British Library is already essential to the UK HE sector. Much of its work is recognised as innovative and transformative. However, despite the long history of partnerships between the BL and both libraries and researchers there is an equally long issue concerning the Library’s ability to move flexibly with the sector. The most recent example of this is the real difficulties in making EThos efficient and effective throughout the UK.

The most critical strategic question concerns the Library’s ability to adapt to a sector that will undergo a considerable period of change in 2012-2014. The undergraduate base will be more demanding, the postgraduate base will focus even more intensively on science in fewer institutions and the research postgraduate base will expect far richer content to be digital. Each major library will need to address all of these in a context of more commercial interest in the provision of information direct to readers, not least from Google.

The Russell Group libraries, the major libraries of the 1994 Group, the great heritage institutions and the NHS information services will all be asked to do more with less. The British Library is key to much of this new environment, not least as JISC and the European Commission shift both their business models and emphases to coordinated delivery of research content and away from investigative pilot projects.

I believe that although the BL needs to increase its presence across the UK, that the existing concentration of students, researchers and libraries in London offers a real opportunity to build new partnerships. Shared digital services and coordinated physical access policies will enable the BL to engage with HE and HE will help the BL remain essential to research in the ever-changing information age.

The Final Piece

The future university is often termed in the singular. Similarly, the future of libraries assumes a common destiny, as if all libraries, all universities were the same to begin with. This of course, is not the case. Each one is a different piece in the jigsaw that forms the education sector.

Universities in the future will perform in many different ways. As now, there will be institutions focused on teaching and others where research depth, both in terms of staff and income, is the principal aim. In each, the supporting services will reflect these priorities. In particular, libraries and information services will consist primarily of intellectual content (what used to be called books), or large digital teaching platforms. In a few cases, institutions will deliver both teaching on a large scale and research in most disciplines. These ‘dual’ universities will be the most expensive to attend, the hardest from which to obtain the offer of a place, and will be the strongest international brands.

In other words, not much is likely to change at the institutional level except for a considerable increase in pervasive technologies for both research facilitation and teaching. The impact of this on both original academic output and on the student experience is that the future, if it is to be defined at all, will be defined as collaborative.

The greater change, certainly in Western countries will be a reduction in the number of institutions capable of awarding degrees, especially higher degrees. The international university sector will alter dramatically over the next ten years, as a natural effect of the greater concentration of research funding in a smaller group of institutions. These universities will also become more adept at using their research culture to attract and retain students. This will mean they will be more expensive to attend, but the degrees awarded will consequently be viewed as valuable. Many more students will also choose to study further for Masters and Doctoral awards.

The larger body of teaching-led institutions will see mergers and closures. In the UK, there is an astonishing disparity of quality and resources between universities currently planning to charge the maximum £9000 per year at undergraduate level. This will have to be resolved in order to make any sense of choice for students and to ensure that higher education can be clear to employers. Presently, commerce must think that many universities have lost their minds.

In terms of disciplines, the ‘grand’ humanities subjects such as English, History, Classics, Philosophy, Music, Art History, Archaeology and Modern Languages will retain their status at the heart of the research-intensive curriculum. They will though, gradually become ever more interdisciplinary at the higher research level. Again, technology, in terms of the digital humanities will shift from its current position as a quirky sub-discipline to a dominant role in all core fields.

Science, often viewed as more innovative in its use of technology will need to be more radical with its students. Science research is leading edge but much teaching and staff-student contact is very traditional. Students often have to wait until their PhD before they are fully immersed in new work. Many of them never see it. I have seen evidence of this in large institutional surveys, where undergraduates in science are frequently underwhelmed by their experience of teaching. This must and will change.

With greater clarity over the roles of differing institutions, rather than, as is the case now, all universities claiming world-class status, will come a better relationship between education and the wider world. The employment sector will seek out talent from both vocational and research institutions. Universities in the future will also be able to carve out new roles in international relations and politics; a natural development of stronger brand recognition.

Technology partners, such as Google and Apple will be more attracted to universities with an intellectual brand to match their own in retail. This has already begun. iTunesU is usually promoted using Stanford, UCL and Oxford. Marketing of research culture will increase.

Whatever the future holds for our sector it is likely to be an improvement on the current state of affairs, as long as universities themselves are given a strong, open voice at the table of government. That is the one piece of the jigsaw I cannot find. I wonder if anyone will discover it?


It is difficult to see the truth when it hides behind well-groomed intelligence. David Willetts, the UK’s minister for universities is the considerate, clever face of a government which either does know what it is doing, and if so should be honest about it, or doesn’t know what it is doing, and if so should be stopped.

The sixth form student, Padge, above is part of a BBC interview concerning young people who wish to go to university but are put under pressure by their families to get a job instead. Padge did better at his GCSEs than even he expected. He wants to study biology at university, but his builder father is discouraging. Not least, because he himself always avoided debt.

There are few things that make me angry (any more), but the current government policies on education certainly account for many of them. Without going into detail, I would not have been able to go to university, in my case Queen’s University Belfast, unless the government had helped me. It did, and although I supplemented the grant with performance fees (I studied music), I did live on just over £1000 per year. I managed this of course with family help, but the grant was essential. I also left Queen’s without student debt.

The problem that the coalition government is trying to fix does exist. There are too many universities, which are devaluing degrees and forcing employers to make distinctions that once were made between people with or without a degree. The truth is that degrees from some universities in the UK are viewed by employers as no better than being without one. Not only have students wasted time they have also begun life in debt for something almost worthless.

At the same time, the government is allowing the cost of degrees to the individual student to soar. Even the basic economics is not logical. The product is becoming devalued, so rather than improve the product, it is retailed at a higher price. Who in government is responsible for this thinking?

There are 20-30 universities in the UK which will always be at the top of the national league tables. There are two or three, possibly four which will also be ranked at the top of the international tables. There are another 30-40 universities which, whilst not possessing the vast research depth of the top 20, remain very strong institutions. They should be supported to become more focused on quality in fewer areas and discouraged from competing with the larger research-intensives. Additionally, the UK has some of the world’s finest art schools and music conservatoires. These should be protected and promoted.

The government misunderstands the sector fundamentally, perhaps even willfully. If you take these policies to their logical conclusion the UK would have an entire university sector made up of institutions like Imperial College London, and very few of them. We would be excellent at producing a low number of science graduates. These would go on to superb jobs in the US or Asia and never come back.

For everything else, mediocre would be acceptable. Second-rate humanities departments would produce debt-ridden, unemployable graduates without ambition or learning. And this would be fine because in the eyes of the government the humanities ‘don’t really matter’ anyway. Who would care that currently one of the world’s most creative and historically rich nations had lost its ability to reflect on its place in the world?

Well, many people care.

The solution proposed by the government to a problem defined as financial, is to pass that problem to young people. It does not solve anything. It just spreads the difficulty further. One of the most destructive drivers for student fees rises is that those in power tell us the nation cannot afford to run higher education anymore. That is half true.

A successful university sector in the UK would consist of around 100 institutions of differing kinds, all offering free places to the best students. Padge would realise his ambition and there would be less waste. Padge is a UK student who even wants to study science for heaven’s sake. Why is he not being given every possible support, every opportunity?

New Guillotine of the Masses

Ai Weiwei

‘A society lacking individual consciousness is truly gloomy and cold, and widespread abandonment will cause the very last green leaf to wither; it is capable of extinguishing the very last candle.’ Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is the most significant living Chinese artist. He is also one of the world’s most influential designers, architects and bloggers. On the 3rd April 2011 the Chinese government arrested him as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong. The charges are typically opaque; ‘economic crimes.’ His studio in Shanghai was closed, computers and hard drives removed, his assistant has disappeared and many other staff and relations have been arrested. Only four days ago, on the 16th May his wife was allowed a brief visit for the first time.

Weiwei was contracted as the design consultant for the famous ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, the centerpiece of China’s Olympic park. His art works and installations have been exhibited in every major gallery in the world and both international governments and the art world have demanded his release from custody.

I am reading a collection of his blogs at the moment, published by MIT Press in the US. This is an interesting book for two reasons; firstly, his writing is vicious and brave on all aspects of politics and art; secondly it is an important book because it is a book. Weiwei is notorious for crossing standard boundaries, particularly when working as both artist and architect. This time he has printed the Internet.

Weiwei has been especially scathing of the Chinese authorities over their handling of the devastation following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. His blog was removed when he published an (incomplete) list of nearly 6000 children who had been killed by collapsing buildings at school because of poor flooring and ceilings built without any support. The Chinese government still denies that a lack of building quality in its schools is to blame. Following an interview for state television, where Weiwei repeated his claims, he was badly beaten. At an opening of an exhibition in Germany soon afterwards he was taken into hospital where German doctors discovered a cerebral hemorrhage. He has survived worse.

‘How foolish and obscene must a person be to lie to the families of the deceased, to bully parents who suffer from the loss of their children and their ruined futures? They cover eyes, stuff throats, wiretap phones, track whereabouts, and threaten, they buy people off, detain, beat and persecute the common people.’ Weiwei

It was to be expected that the move towards greater openness in China leading up to the Beijing Olympics would be restrained once the Games had been completed. The current crack-down on dissent is far stronger than anticipated though, apparently because of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts in the Middle-East and the Chinese government’s fear of a similar uprising in China. Weiwei is by far the most prominent person to be detained. There will certainly be many thousands more now in prison or dead.

As the West deals with the threat from al-Qaeda, the growing tension across North Africa and the complexity of an aggressive Iran it is astonishing that for the most part, except for press comment on Weiwei, China is reported as little more than a business opportunity. I have direct experience of this through Higher Education, but that is small-fry compared to the view taken by global commerce of the vast resource in manufacturing and retail presented to an economically-challenged Western world.

Google’s decision to leave China is its best and bravest decision since its formation. The trigger for this was a response to a series of web hackings dubbed ‘Operation Aurora’ by Western security agencies. It is proven that this extensive illegal activity originated in China, and was therefore almost certainly funded by the Chinese authorities. Google’s accounts were all hacked. So were Weiwei’s, his personal date stolen and bank accounts accessed.

Proof that the Internet is now the most important tool to humanity is that so much of it is banned in so many countries. In China, Twitter, the new guillotine of the masses cannot be accessed. If it were available it would be even more powerful than in the West, as 140 characters in Chinese equates to 140 words, not letters. Deeply profound statements would undoubtedly result from a Chinese version of social networking. Facebook, Google, YouTube and other websites are also banned or censored.

The ‘last candles’ in Weiwei’s China are still alight, but flickering. This country is a business opportunity beyond the dreams of most corporatists, but at what cost?

An equivalent rate of return

‘Oh that Tony Blair. He’d stick a poem on a bus shelter and call it a University.’

Victoria Wood

I think I’ve heard just about enough of government cuts. The entire topic is misrepresented by both Parliament and Whitehall, and oddly accepted by the press. It is clearly an opportunistic attempt to re-engineer much of UK society, and even where I agree with the changes, I wish people would be more honest when talking about it.

One area that I find particularly sinister is the combination of raising student fees to £9000 and withdrawing almost all teaching grants in the arts and humanities from the academic year 2012-2013 onwards. There has been an outcry that places such as Lincoln University and University College Falmouth are proposing to charge the same as Cambridge.

I believe that there are three tiers of higher education institutions in this country:

1) The top 20 Russell Group and the smaller research intensive 1994 Group, also the Conservatoires and other elite colleges.

2) All the other universities.

3) The small specialist institutions, mainly in the arts (about 30).

There can be no doubt that the government (by which I mean the Civil Service) saw an opportunity when the Tories entered Number 10. Finally, they could move to close the many, second-rate universities that were simply producing arts graduates without the clout of a Russell Group degree or the elite entrance criteria of, for example the Royal College of Music. Although prospectuses across the sector all use the phrase ‘world-class’ this only genuinely applies to Group 1.

The problem; we have too many universities. Labour believed that by allowing 50% of the population to obtain a degree, that employers would suddenly equate a degree from Oxford with one from Coventry. How could they have thought this? The word ‘elite’ has been expunged from discussion of Britain’s universities. I want to bring it back. I obviously do not accept a system that allows entrance to Cambridge simply because of attending Harrow School – surely this is less pervasive than in the past (ha!). I do accept that a university or college can describe itself as elite if it selects its students on ability or talent. That is not a social judgment but an academic one. For instance, it is not possible, it is simply not achievable to be awarded a place at the Royal Academy of Music if you are anything less than a brilliant musician. Not only that, but to win such a place you are performing (in this case literally) against other exceptional players, from all over the world. There are usually more than 30 applicants per place.

In the Russell Group, candidates are on average applying against 15-20 people per place. In almost all of Group 2 above, which amounts to around 120 of the UK’s 185 universities, there is no competition. Some ask for higher ‘A’ level results than others but hardly ever are candidates truly in competition to gain a place. In around 20-30 of these institutions, those at the bottom of every league table, students are accepted regardless of academic ability, often without any ‘A’ levels.

At the same time as the country is dealing with a massive overproduction of graduates in, say media studies or even English Literature, the UK also suffers from a shortage of highly-qualified trades. The universities in Group 2 used to provide quality vocational qualifications. Now they neither produce that or arts degrees that offer their students a real chance in life. I am passionate about education’s ability to provide opportunity, but not all education should be based on an understanding of Macbeth. For many young people, life chances could be transformed through properly funded, ‘world-class’ vocational qualifications. Most plumbers earn more than professors anyway.

On the research side, as opposed to the teaching side there are delusions too. Research in the UK is funded by the four national funding councils and by the subject-based research councils. Peer-review processes split this, across every university in the country. Or that is the theory. In reality, the Russell Group of 20 elite universities receive over 70% of the money and produce (an important benchmark for research culture) over 85% of PhD students. So the money is spread ever more thinly between the great research institutions and the crumbs from the table go to ‘pockets of excellence’ in Group 2 who are not fundamentally driven by research in the first place.

Group 3 is interesting. It includes many small arts institutions without either the legacy or endowments of places such as the Royal College of Art. These are typically of about 1000 students, non-selective (anyone who applies gets a place) and very vulnerable to cuts in arts teaching grants as almost no research is carried out. I worked at one of these, Dartington College of Arts and it gave me a fascinating perspective on education. I have spent almost my entire career in the Russell Group but am eternally grateful to have worked outside it (and for the record to be back inside).

The only real answer for these institutions is not to charge students £9000 (as Falmouth will do), but to merge successful courses with sustainable institutions who would genuinely benefit from targeted arts specialism. Falmouth is a good example. £9000 in Cambridge buys you a valuable degree, but also access to the world’s greatest academics and one of the most important libraries on earth. I do not believe that the same amount of cash can seriously be said to offer Falmouth students the equivalent rate of return.

The answer for Falmouth, which has a justifiably famous heritage as a fine art school, should be to merge all non-academic and constitutional functions with Exeter University, a strong 1994 Group institution which would benefit from a ‘bit of art.’

The Labour government believed that extending access to University for half the population of young people would give more opportunity. Instead it put hundreds of thousands of students into debt, and with no career prospects owing to poor quality degrees.

The Tory government wants to close many of Britain’s universities, particularly those in Group 2. Rather than close, it would be better to accept that the polytechnic \ university difference still exists, it’s just that everything is named ‘University.’ If these were reopened as successful training colleges, students would be able to achieve qualifications suited to their talents and find work.

What is happening now is a slow death by a thousand cuts, where institutions such as Falmouth are forced to raise student’s fees and their expectations. Only the former will be achieved.

The UK would be better placed internationally with around 30-40 elite, well-funded universities. Places in these institutions should also be free. For the exceptionally talented, the conservatoires and quality colleges of art would provide the necessary environments. If the government is intent on suffocating underperforming universities by cutting arts teaching grants, it should at least have the decency to let their students know this before they write cheques they regret.

I believe in the power of education to transform lives. It happened to me in a Russell Group university I had to work hard to get into. I could not have gone to Queen’s without a grant either. This is essential. Elite universities should be in a position to seek and support talent. But not going to university should be seen as an achievement if your talent lies elsewhere. I know a lot about music but was at a loss when the pipes burst last winter.

Variety is not only the spice of life but also the backbone of a strong country. The UK is in danger of being dulled and weakened by dishonest and poorly considered cuts driven by an agenda that thinks elitism is decided by a student’s background. I reject this government’s view of my professional sector even when the outcome might be one to which I adhere.

Times Higher Education – Research Access

I wanted to post a copy of an interview I did with the Times Higher Education Supplement last week on the blog. The text is by Paul Jump at the THES and it raises some interesting angles on the future of institutional repositories, the international infrastructure in place for the deposit of open access articles outside of library journal subscriptions:

The recent launch of several high-profile open-access journals by commercial publishers including Nature Publishing Group and SAGE elicited cheers from veterans of the open-access movement.

Here, they thought, was evidence that their ideal of making research freely available online, as expressed in 2002′s landmark Budapest Open Access Initiative document, was finally gaining mainstream traction.

But according to Christopher Pressler, director of research library services at the University of London, the enthusiasm for “gold” (journal-based) open access is relatively recent and amounts to a “fundamental compromise” necessitated by the open-access movement’s failure to plan for the financial sustainability and academic appeal of “green” open access, which is built around self-archiving papers in institutional repositories.

He contended that librarians’ original goal in pushing for open access was to take academic publishing away from the commercial enterprises they perceived to be making unjustifiably large profits from charging universities for access to their own research.

Mr Pressler told Times Higher Education that the rise of gold open access could lead to an even greater drain on university budgets due to some publishers’ alleged practice of “double dipping”: charging authors for open-access options without reducing subscription prices proportionately.

Institutional repositories have been established in their hundreds by institutions worldwide, including around 150 in the UK, but by common consent have attracted disappointingly little content.

“Setting up repositories was one of the major strategic ambitions in the past 10 years, but we have to face the fact that they have not transformed the research landscape in the way we had hoped,” Mr Pressler said.

But not everyone is ready to write them off. Neil Jacobs, acting programme director for digital infrastructure at Jisc, the UK higher education IT consortium, pointed to considerable activity around some repositories. The University of Glasgow facility, for example, records 20,000 downloads every month.

He said the growth of repositories’ contents could be boosted by projects to automate the deposit of papers into repositories after the specified embargo period – typically six months – has passed.

Other defenders point to repositories’ suitability for hosting non-traditional academic outputs such as videos and datasets, and for helping universities to showcase their research and prepare for research assessment programmes.

No quality control, publishers warn

Michael Mabe, chief executive of the International Association of Scientific, Medical and Technical Publishers and a visiting professor in information science at University College London, said that publishers were increasingly uncomfortable with the threat posed by repositories.

He noted that even cutting-edge science papers see only half of their total downloads within six months, meaning that publishers who allow papers to enter a repository after that period are giving away large numbers of downloads.

Professor Mabe also feared that once repositories contained a significant volume of material, libraries might no longer feel the need to subscribe to journals at all, leading to their demise.

This would be disastrous, he argued, because repositories are essentially “electronic buckets” with no quality control. He also expressed doubts that the academy would be able to successfully introduce peer review to such repositories, partly because it would be difficult to attract reviewers who had no “brand allegiance” to the repositories.

Mr Pressler agreed that repositories in their current form are no substitute for high-impact journals, as association with such journals – as an author or editor – conferred considerable professional benefits.

He said the open-access movement had been misguided to push for institution-based repositories when academic communities were built around disciplines. Instead, he argued, advocates should have tried much earlier to convert research funders to the open-access cause and ask them to organise funding and peer review for repositories in their subject areas.

But Mr Pressler argued that it was not too late to recast the existing infrastructure in the form of international subject repositories or e-journals that would replicate everything that existing journals did.

Cameron Neylon, an academic editor at peer-reviewed open-access journal PLoS ONE, agreed that getting the most out of repositories would involve thinking of them as a mechanism for publishing as well as archiving. But he said that enthusiasts were held back by their “terror” of a publishers’ backlash.

Professor Mabe pointed to the history of public sector IT projects running over time and over budget and accused librarians of employing “voodoo economics” to demonstrate repositories’ cost effectiveness.

But Mr Pressler said he was very surprised that it had not occurred to cash-strapped governments and funders that huge savings could be made by taking publishers’ profit margins out of university budgets.

He argued that however loudly academics and publishers might protest, it could be easily achieved with enough political will. “If the combined journal invoices of the Russell Group were redirected to create a properly governed, peer-reviewed open-access landscape, it could be achieved collaboratively,” he said.

To Google or Not to Google

The search giant, Google has strategically been digitising books for a number of years now. Of the ten million or so completed, around two million are in the public domain and six million are embargoed by copyright.

This article deliberately excludes historic and special collections in considering contemporary themes in mass digitisation. That is a closely aligned but very different discussion. Most positively, those collections will offer all research libraries a clear future as digital surrogates of rare materials only increase demand to view the original. That is different from standard texts. Conversely, the library profession could be diverted into lengthy, fascinating discussions on these wonderful materials and entirely miss an opportunity to influence a major development on the web. Google would be laughing all the way to whichever bank it chooses.

Libraries are faced now with demands to prove purpose. This is acute in the public library sector, with the exception of the world’s largest public libraries. Even there, belts are being tightened. In academic research libraries the dual demands of teaching and research are effecting fundamental change on services. Students expect greater technology-led services and researchers demand content in print or digital media. At the same time, the commercial sector is intervening in both roles of the library more critically than ever before. This article will focus on the academic library sector and the processes associated with communicating research.

In addition to defining our role as library services at all, there are further complexities around the types of content we need to deliver. The higher education sector is still trying to agree a satisfactory model for the production and long-term accessibility of journal articles. This specific issue has been taken off-course by libraries’ spending years, and £\$\€millions on promoting open access repositories without the required focus on the academics providing the initial content. This technical infrastructure, whilst comparatively successful in delivering a standard architecture has not changed the research communications landscape as intended. We are now forced back into negotiations with journal publishers over inflation increases, and into the same discussions that occurred ten years ago. We have, I am sorry to say, been wasting our time.

While the library sector has been engaged in small-scale pilot projects and proof-of-concept computing, the web has altered without us. Google did not exist when funding for repositories first started. It has now overwhelmed them.

In academia, and despite the essential nature of databases and other information media the two dominant forms of communication remain journals and books. Both are now online and on the shelf, but they are still the principal ways for researchers to communicate with their students, the wider public and each other. If we have missed an opportunity to exploit the technology of e-journals to provide a different business model, surely we are not going to do exactly the same thing with books?

It is recognised that libraries have been at the forefront of working to digitise very large numbers of books and to make them available on the web. In the US, the Hathi Trust, a consortium of 52 research libraries has digitised around eight million volumes. Approximately two million of these are in the public domain. The Trust offers something beyond Google: it is primarily a library rather than a commercial company. This difference means that reader access, not stakeholder profit is the purpose of the service. It also means that digital preservation is at the top of the agenda, not a rather fragile footnote.

Hathi is still a club and consequently there are member benefits. If a reader is not associated with any of the collaborating universities, he or she will only be able to access certain materials. It is likely that there is considerable duplication with Google’s service here as an out of copyright, or orphan (where the rights holder cannot be found) book will eventually be available on the web anyway. However, it seems to me that the potential of Hathi is considerable.

If we leap to an idealised future where all books in let’s say, the world’s greatest libraries are available free on the web, what would we have created? For the sake of argument, when I say ‘books’ in this context I mean published bound printed volumes. A ‘book’ comes in many forms in libraries. These libraries are the national libraries of the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Russia and China. It would be wise to add Harvard. In the UK, Oxford, Cambridge and London holdings need to be checked against the British Library and similarly in the great university libraries of the other countries.

If all these libraries digitised their entire book collections, or even only those legally open, and made them freely available on the web the dominance of Google would be genuinely challenged or perhaps enhanced, depending on the view taken of handing over responsibility for global intellectual content to a private company. The obstacles are familiar: money and copyright. Google does not have a problem with the former and will likely buy its way out of the latter. For libraries though, both remain an issue, without creativity and ambition.

There is enough money in the public purse to achieve a global digital library. Hathi has already proved that working together delivers tangible results. As is always the case when cost seems prohibitive we have to ask ourselves what is the cost of not acting? This is certainly a driving principle behind the burgeoning idea in the US of a Digital Public Library of America, a potentially vast collection to rival Google but free for public use. For large research libraries, the answer to the Google strategy question is simple – libraries will lose the ability to manage the delivery of books to readers.

Google intends such management to continue, but on its own terms. Libraries would not be an important voice in the web’s development, we could not guarantee in perpetuity of access and perhaps most crucially, we would be faced with negotiating access through subscriptions. In short, we would have created for books precisely the same situation we now struggle against concerning journals. All that would have changed from a library perspective is that we would be dealing with two industries (Google content and journal publishers), rather than one.

The issue of copyright remains difficult although Google’s ‘coach and horses’ approach to the courts may change everything. In a world transformed by the information age it is worth reflecting on the validity of copyright law written for an earlier, perhaps simpler, certainly more controlled research environment. New licenses such as Creative Commons may be a glimpse into the future but if so, legal action needs to be quick and comprehensive relating to books. Neither characteristic is commonly associated with copyright law. Google Books may alter the landscape more rapidly.

The Hathi Trust as it stands now accounts for around seventy-five percent of all the content in Google Books. We are at a decisive point in library history. It is time to create the global digital library before it is brought into being by an entity without guaranteed longevity or education as its core principles. Owing, more by luck than judgment, to the otherwise limited repository environment we also, for a short time still possess much of the infrastructure needed to build the next great library open to all.

The world’s research libraries have much to gain and a great deal to lose. Whichever happens, the impact will touch every person who ever bought, borrowed, read or wrote a book.