Archive for March 2011

The student drinking culture

March 31, 2011

Over the past ten years I have frequently, particularly on a Friday night or at weekends, overheard students talking about their plans for a drinking spree. I remember on one occasion hearing one female student say to another at a bus stop that she was planning to get ‘totally smashed’ and that it would not be a good night if she could remember any of it in the morning. Maybe the recession may have put some financial restraints on such conduct, but anyone familiar with higher education will know that this would not have been an isolated attitude.

Of course the longer term impact on health of such conduct would be obvious enough to most observers, but what is the more immediate impact on the students’ studies? This has now been the subject of a study by an American doctoral student, who appears to have found that leisure activities, including drinking, can have a significant impact on academic performance; though a student who is inclined to drink but who also participates in organised extra-curriculur activities may not be so badly affected.

It is certainly the case that excessive drinking has become a problem, leading to non-attendance at classes and poor performance, but also to vandalism and anti-social behaviour that can intimidate members of the community. Most anti-drinking campaigns are directed at motorists or at the wider population more generally. It may be time to target students specifically.

Organising international student recruitment

March 31, 2011

In Ireland the new government has now been in place for a couple of weeks or so, and it is interesting to note what has been its first higher education initiative: international student recruitment. Last week Ruairi Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills (together with Richard Bruton, whose ministerial title is Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation), launched a new government campaign or brand, ‘Education in Ireland’, thereby implementing one of the commitments of the programme for government. According to the agency’s website, it will help to market Ireland ‘as a destination for students’ and will support Irish education institutions in doing so.

The idea in itself is not new, and for much of the past ten years attempts have been made to establish a body of this kind. However, sufficient resources were never made available and this (and one or two other obstacles) made the implementation of the plans difficult. Whether all this has now been overcome remains to be seen.

The government’s targets are not modest. In the announcement of the establishment of the agency the government declares that international student numbers in Ireland should be doubled to 52,o00. To put that in perspective, the Irish university sector has 96,000 students, and the institutes of technology have 62,000. Even allowing for the fact that a large proportion of the 52,000 students will be heading for the private English language colleges, this is still a massive number, and it may need to be said that international recruitment should not be seen as something with limitless potential: there needs to be a sensible balance of overseas and home students. I do not know how many students are targeted for the universities, but any number higher than 15,000 or so may not be appropriate.

It also needs to be emphasised again that international students – and their fee income – are no substitute for the proper funding of domestic students. It would not be reasonable to see international student recruitment as a method of subsiding core higher education activities. There are good reasons for recruiting overseas students, but this must be done for pedagogical and cultural reasons, and not just or mainly for financial ones. Seeing education largely as an export product creates significant quality risks. It is therefore important that those running this new initiative consider the brief carefully and that they work closely with the universities.

The working student

March 30, 2011

The Vice-Chancvellor of the University of Melbourne in Australia, Professor Glyn Davis, recently wrote about some of the financial pressures on students. In Australia, he said, 44 per cent of students are also in employment of some sort or another while undertaking their studies.

In fact, some work done in Ireland has suggested that a remarkably large percentage of students doing full-time degree programmes are also working in jobs that are, statistically, counted as full-time jobs. The impact of this can be seen in class attendance, and no doubt also in the inability of some students to devote enough time to course work and revision.

As financial pressures increase this is unlikely to get much better, and it may be time for universities to review how they structure their courses. The assumption that students are available without competing pressures during what one might loosely call office hours is not necessarily a valid one any more, at least for some students. How this can be accommodated within higher education practice is now an issue that should be addressed. Otherwise we may face a system in which a major proportion of students is not properly engaged with the learning process.

Is the ‘public university’ doomed?

March 30, 2011

In a post on this blog a couple of months ago I looked at the emergence of campaigns to protect the concept of ‘public’ universities. I noted at the time that the term ‘public univertsity’ might not have as clear a meaning as some might think, and that as a society we are not really sure about how we want our higher education to be structured.

Another analysis of this issue has been published in the United States, with the author, Christopher Newfield, arguing that public universities (like much of the public service) are being undermined in a deliberate attack on the principles that lie at the heart of post-War egalitarian values. He suggests that the willingness of university leaders to search for non-public money to replace reduced state funding has helped to subvert these values of higher education.

It is my view that many of today’s proponents of public higher education are, though surely not deliberately, co-conspirators in its threatened demise. For many of these the battle for the public university has focused almost entirely on the idea of public funding as the exclusive or at least dominant revenue base for institutions, with far less emphasis on how that funding should be structured or indeed how much of it there should be. Politicians (or some of them) promise there will be no tuition fees while being completely unable to offer funding that would make the promise a sustainable one. As a result the focus has been on free access; and that is fine, except that the quality of what is being accessed seems to stir up very little interest.

Higher education quality should not be an after-thought. Preserving ‘public’ universities that are in reality unable to compete with other countries and which are starved of resources does not preserve social benefits, and is not egalitarian in effect.

I am firmly in favour of public education, but this needs to be built around its mission and purpose and not, at least primarily, around the source of its financing. It may be lost, not because people disagree with it, but because they are not invited to understand it. The tuition fees argument has become too facile, and as a result genuine public education may be compromised.

The argument for public education should be about open access to a high quality system that engages society and promotes the advancement of knowledge and scholarship. That, I believe, is how the principle should be stated. And those who want to support public higher education should stop asking politicians to sign pledges in relation to one apparent aspect of this while ignoring all the others.

Trivialising brutality

March 29, 2011

Maybe I’m too innocent or lead en excessively sheltered life, but I have to admit that this news story shocked me. In the United States a computer games company is planning to release a game called School Shooter: North American Tour 2010. The ‘game’ is loosely based on the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in the United States, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed. In the ‘game’ the player’s task is to shoot as many teachers and students as possible. Even more amazingly and shockingly, the ‘game’s’ author has explained his ‘product’ by saying that ‘nobody has ever tried create a proper game about a school shooting’ – adding for good measure that he was more shocked by the demonisation of the Columbine killers than by what they did.

The website that was intending to host this particular piece of utter nastiness has changed its mind and has pulled it (but only after coming in for severe criticism), but the author still intends to release the ‘game’.

I rather hope that my response to this is not that untypical, but I am bound to wonder whether School Shooter is in the end that much different from hundreds of products that are freely sold and used and which have at their core an encouragement of mindless and sometimes extreme violence. School Shooter seems worse because its narrative is so close to actual (and repeated) events, and for me perhaps because of its educational setting; but the idea of the player shooting and killing defenceless targets is hardly unique in the computer gaming industry.

Computer games may seem very remote from ‘real’ life, but for some fans this dividing line can be alarmingly blurred. It may be time to look again at this whole sub-culture to see what values it is promoting or casting in ethical fog.

The wiki generation

March 29, 2011

If you are like me, you may be getting a bit tired of the prefix ‘wiki’ appearing everywhere. I have to confess that it has taken me until today to find out what ‘wiki’ actually means. Actually, I still don’t really know, because there are various suggestions out there on the internet. The two most commonly given are that ‘wiki’ is an acronym that stands for ‘What I Know Is’; or that it is Hawaiian for ‘quick’ (or rather, it is half of that, as the Hawaiian word is apparently ‘wiki-wiki’).

Of course what made ‘wiki’ famous is Wikipedia, the online open access encyclopaedia that you and I can edit. It is now one of the two or three most frequently accessed internet sites, with literally millions of articles. It is the last (or sometimes first) resort of students writing essays, or of people wanting reasonably detailed answers on whatever interests them.

The academic and expert communities have always been divided on Wikipedia. Now nearly ten years old, the website has been criticised for inaccuracy and sloppy oversight. In 2006 some of the original founders moved away and created a new site, Citizendium, which was also to be written by volunteers but which was to have more careful and expert monitoring and checking. It hasn’t worked, because some years on it still only has 15,693 entries, and of these only 155 have actually been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that was to be the chief characteristic of the site. Meanwhile Wikipedia keeps growing, and it is now said that for many users of the internet it is the only site they visit if they want to have quick information. Whatever is on Wikipedia, right or wrong, is now the only authority many people ever get to know.

I recently chatted with a group of academics who all declared that it was their belief that the academy needed to fight the use of Wikipedia with all the energy it could muster. But there are others who take a different approach. So for example the Association for Psychological Science is organising its members to edit, correct and monitor Wikipedia articles relevant to its field, thereby creating a more accurate set of articles. Other groups have also been formed to work on a voluntary basis to enhance quality control on the site, including a group of academics in Imperial College London. A research team in Carnegie Mellon University has produced a learned paper suggesting ways in which Wikipedia can be enhanced as a reliable tool (‘Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds in Wikipedia: Quality Through Coordination’). It may be that a gradual change of approach by the higher education community is under way.

Information gathering and distribution on the internet is constantly reinventing itself, and Wikipedia may yet be replaced with something different. But in the meantime it is there, and it is the information framework that most people now use and believe. There is very little point in fighting that, but there may be much to be gained from a better organised academic engagement.

Not just a philosophical question

March 28, 2011

Over the past year campaigns have been fought over the survival of small philosophy departments in at least two British universities: Middlesex and Keele. In both cases the university concerned had decided to discontinue the subject, where philosophy was not part of what many might have considered the more visible public identity of the institution; but equally in both cases the philosophers had built up significant standing in the wider academic community. In the second of these, the case of Keele, the university has now reversed its decision and the subject will survive (and of course the inevitable Facebook campaign helped).

I have always believed that philosophy has a vital role to play in the academy, and so when Keele announced its change of heart I was really rather pleased. But there are difficult issues here from which we cannot so easily escape. The idea of a university as an institution that contains all the key elements of classical scholarship is not one that can still survive. Fifty years ago you could imagine a perfectly good university with 60 departments covering all the traditional subjects, and with the average number of academics in each department being perhaps eight or nine. That model is no longer viable. We now have a knowledge framework that requires much bigger academic units to provide critical mass. There is still scope for some smaller, boutique departments, but these cannot provide the backbone of an entire university.

So universities will have to make difficult choices, and we cannot all rise up in arms every time an institution decides that it must drop something. One would hope that any such decisions, if they are made, will involve a transfer of staff, and will involve good communications and dialogue with staff; in other words, this needs to be done well. But the search for a viable model of a university will still need to go on. Furthermore as it does, the idea that you cannot have a university without, say, history, or chemistry, or philosophy cannot be sustained any longer either. Some universities will become much more specialised in a smaller range of subject areas; or maybe a different kind of interdisciplinary range.

I am still pleased for the Keele philosophers, and I hope they thrive. Actually, I somehow think that however they are configured all universities should have at least a philosopher or two. But I wouldn’t like to think that the lesson from all this is that difficult decisions of this kind should never be taken. That would be unrealistic.

Determining the national research agenda

March 27, 2011

A common feature of government-commissioned higher education reviews in a number of countries in recent years has been the suggestion that publicly funded research (and indeed teaching programmes) should take account of national strategic priorities. Put another way, what this means is that if university researchers are spending public money on research projects, these should at least in some measure address issues and problems that the government has identified as being important.

So for example, this imperative was set out in New Horizons, the final report of the Scottish Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities, as follows:

‘Universities already contribute and will expect to continue to contribute significantly to making Scotland a more prosperous place. In future, though, the Scottish Government will expect the university sector to demonstrate more explicitly how the funding it receives from the Government contributes to delivering against the National Outcomes, thereby ensuring there is alignment of publicly funded activity against the Scottish Government’s Purpose – its vision for the whole of Scotland – as set out in the National Performance Framework.’

Similarly in Ireland the Hunt report (National Strategy for Higher Education) suggested that research should be more focused and should address areas of strategic priority identified by the government.

The case for these recommendations would be that as significant public money is being spent, at least some of it should be spent on finding solutions to national problems identified by elected governments. The case – maybe not against this proposition, but at least in partial qualification of it – might be that the academy cannot constantly be conscripted to follow the latest political fad; and that society benefits greatly from general research capacity building, and that curiosity based research is often responsible for some of our greatest advances.

An example of the problems this kind of approach may encounter can be found in the recent decision by the British government to make David Cameron’s concept of the ‘big society’ a required subject for at least some funded research. Apparently the government made the maintenance of the full funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council conditional on a ‘significant’ amount of the money being spent on the ‘big society’ idea. This has generated accusations that the government is using public money to give academic respectability to what is really just a political slogan.

It is a tricky issue. The ‘big society’ concept has already been the subject of some academic analysis anyway: for example, in this seminar at the University of Southampton. If public money were being allocated on the condition that researchers validate a political slogan or a particular party’s policies, then we would be moving into territory that might more comfortably be left to Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi.  But a more impartial approach to analyzing government policies, including analysis of a central policy platform, may be less of a problem. But even then some may feel that any government direction of the subject areas for academic research crosses a line.

It seems likely to me that it is no longer realistic to expect governments, with scarce resources to distribute, to stay away from any kind of prioritisation of research areas. However, what could not be acceptable would be any attempt to make research focus on partisan political concepts. Furthermore, what must also be ensured is that any such process does not take over the whole academy, and that independent research, including research with no particular policy agenda or strategic focus, is also maintained in significant volume. That is the deal that higher education must aim to strike.

The right and wrong Michel(l)e

March 26, 2011

In June 2010 Paul McCartney was awarded the US Library of Congress Gershwin Prize, and to celebrate the award was invited to sing in the White House. As part of the concert he sang the Beatles’ song ‘Michelle’, in the presence of Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. McCartney quipped that he might return regularly to the venue. Speaking for myself, if he were to do that and give the song another outing, I only hope that its addressee would still be Michelle Obama, and not another Michele [sic] currently hoping to make it into the White House: the extraordinary (and I don’t particularly mean that in the good sense) Michele Bachmann.

If you have no idea whom I am talking about, you may need to take a moment to acquaint yourself with her. Michele Bachmann is Congresswoman for Minnesota, currently serving her second term. On her website she presents herself as ‘a principled reformer who stays true to her conservative beliefs while pushing for real reform of the broken ways of Washington’. Others may see her just a little differently: she is often seen as bizarrely rightwing, and somewhat confused in relation to the US history she likes to cite. Among the political positions she has adopted are phasing out social security and considering a nuclear strike on Iran. She wants the United States not to be ‘part of the global economy’ (whatever that means).

Anyway, this wonderful cocktail of half-baked lunacies may be about to launch itself as a presidential manifesto. Bachmann is apparently contemplating setting up an exploratory committee, the first step towards a potential White House bid. And if you tend to raise your eyebrows at the thought of Sarah Palin as American President, she would be a model of moderate reasonableness and cerebral intelligence next to Bachmann.

There may be something more profound for us to come to grips with here, however, and it is not necessarily just an American phenomenon. There is a tendency right now for the political right – that is, the ‘respectable’ right outside of the overtly racist and xenophobic brigade – to reinvent itself in political terms that owe nothing to the global post-War political market economy consensus. And that may be something to worry about.

For now, whether it is Bachmann or indeed Palin, I doubt that this sort of message will find a majority in the electorate. In fact, before it gets traction in a bigger way it probably needs a rather more intelligent advocate. But it does have support, and we may need to engage with a political spectrum that is changing dramatically, and in very strange ways.

But in the meantime, I hope that Paul McCartney returns to the White House to serenade Michelle Obama in three years or so.

Taking down the Tower of Babel: languages in retreat?

March 26, 2011

When I was a student, not that many years ago (or so I would argue), it was taken for granted that languages were major tools for success, and language programmes in universities were highly popular. In Ireland, the still rather new membership of what was then the European Economic Community had created a much greater awareness of European languages, and it was widely accepted that language instruction and the development of scholarship in the literature and culture of our EEC neighbours were now vital.

How much this perception has changed is evident when we now see that, in the context of higher education funding cuts in several countries across the world, a frequent response by universities is to discontinue language courses. This is one of the steps being contemplated by Glasgow University in its current difficulties, but it is in no way unique. Across the United States, for example, several universities are scrapping languages (or at least some of them) from their curriculum.

It is sometimes suggested that the cuts are mainly affecting continental European languages, and that Mandarin Chinese in particular is replacing courses in German or Italian. And indeed, English language (and even literature) courses across the non-English speaking world are still thriving, as English remains the lingua franca of global business.

In fact, even if we were to dismiss the significance of languages as communication tools and assume that a command of English is all that matters today (a view I have even heard expressed by a number of Chinese people), languages are a gateway to our understanding of other cultures, which in turn is important for the purposes of political interaction and business and trading links. If we deplore (as we should) the decline of mathematics and science in education, we must take the same view of languages. Thinking of them as less important and therefore targets for cuts in times of financial stress is unlikely to be sensible. But for that to be persuasive to a wider public, political and business leaders need to put more effort into making the case for a much great language proficiency. Doing so is now a matter of urgency.


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