Archive for January 2012

Commenting freely

January 31, 2012

In the age of the internet, the aristocracy of commentary has been deposed. You can, if you are so minded, turn to the leader writers of the old newspapers to get a perspective on what is happening at home and abroad, but you could just as easily turn to an interactive website, or the space at the bottom of opinion pieces on newspaper sites where you and I can enter comments. And boy, do we enter comments! By the truckload, actually. Some of them are totally bizarre and crazy, and a good few of them are either obscene or libellous. Well, depending on where you are browsing. But others are real contributions to the national and global conversation.

However, right now some websites are beginning to wonder whether this facility is a good idea, and whether the risks from open comments are greater than the benefits. Given the sheer volume, moderation is not usually a realistic option. So it may turn out to be the case that the anarchic but often lively forum for loud debate provided by large circulation websites will decline. Perhaps.

But actually, are not universities meant to be spaces for open discussion? So where are the websites hosted by higher education institutions that provide an opportunity for intellectual debate? As higher education itself, but also the world in which it is set, loses so many of its traditional assumptions, should there not be a space where this can be assessed and critiqued by the community? It is time for the academy to be a virtual debating chamber to which all have access.

Pinpoint accuracy

January 28, 2012

Observed and overheard this week inside a branch of  a well-known bank.

Customer (man in his early 40s or so) to bank employee: ‘You’ve sent me a new bank card but when I enter the number it doesn’t work.’
BE to C: ‘You mean the PIN number?’
C to BE: ‘No. The number if I want to use a cash machine.’
BE to C: ‘That’s the PIN number. Put the card in here and try it.’

The customer inserts the card and a rather histrionic pushing of keys with expansive hand and arm movement follows.

C to BE: ‘See, it doesn’t work.’
BE to C: ‘Could you enter it again.’

More histrionic key pushing.

BE to C: ‘Er, sir, you entered a completely different number this time.’
C to BE: ‘Well of course, it would be far too risky to keep using the same one.’

I had to conclude that this customer was not yet ready for a bank account, and probably should be kept away from sharp objects.

In search of the lost paradigm

January 26, 2012

For an academic community, there is always something uplifting about the arrival of one of its respected members in high office. In Ireland this happened last year with the election of Michael D. Higgins as President. As those who know President Higgins will testify, despite his long and distinguished political career he does not hide his academic credentials – nor should he, for they are genuinely impressive. Yesterday provided the President with an opportunity to display them in an obvious setting, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in a ceremony in Dublin Castle.

However, I am not really intending to describe or comment upon the ceremony. Rather, I was struck by the theme the President struck in his address to the convocation, which apart from some reminiscences of his life as an academic in Galway took him to a detailed and scholarly exploration of the role of the university in changing times. The speech (which can be found here) is worth reading in full, but let me focus on what was really his major point. He suggested that public and economic policy was hijacked over recent decades by a particular school of thought, and that this exercise in intellectual aggression produced both an impotence of academic discourse and, in the ‘real’ world of people’s lives, great hardship and deprivation and, ultimately, economic collapse. Following the same trail of thought the President suggests that an invigorated and independent academic community willing to ‘recover the unities of scholarship, to strike out for originality, seek as comparative standards the great moments of intellectual work from around the world’ will be able to make its powerful contribution in the recovery of a more humane political and economic settlement.

There is much in his speech worth supporting, and in particular it must be right to encourage the academy to take its place in leading genuinely independent and scholarly debate that actually addresses the issues in the life of the community. But there is also room for some notes of caution. First, I am not at all sure about the President’s focus on what he describes as a ‘new and largely uncontested paradigm’, which he attacks strongly but never quite explains. He references Friedrich von Hayek and the idea of ‘unrestrained market dominance’, and the notion of the total ‘rationality’ of markets. I always used to forbid students from using the (more often than not misused) word ‘paradigm’, which too often gets conscripted to a weak argument, but leaving that aside, there is in all this just a little bit of an unrestrained caricature which sits on top of much more complex realities. Nobody that I am familiar with has ever advocated ‘unrestrained’ markets, nor was the period that ended with the banking disasters characterised by lack of regulation as is sometimes suggested; it was just regulation that (as is so often the case) didn’t work properly; but there was actually lots of it.

We are all vulnerable to the seductive but damaging charms of nostalgia, and often we are tempted to believe that in another age they did things better and got it right. Then we forget that so much has changed. The period after World War 2 which saw the strong development of the welfare state and what the Germans called the ‘social market economy’ was one in which national markets could be easily protected, and therefore social regulations could be sustained without damaging employment, because technology, and information technology in particular, had not developed to the extent we know it now. We cannot return to that time or its basic methods. A global economy is here to stay, at least for all those who don’t want to accept spectacular poverty as a price for not having globalisation.

But then again, while I wish he had left out the search for an ideological rogues’ gallery who can be fingered as the culprits for all recent woes, President Higgins is still right in his broad message. We are where we are, and we must succeed in the economic world we are in; technological innovation is not our enemy – but…: we must engage in a search for a way in which this world can be made into a place that values and enhances the life of the community, and in which academics pursue themes of critical scholarly inquiry that has the capacity to change lives. This is not a return to some lost golden age. It is the search for a new one.

The last word in new universities?

January 24, 2012

A quarter century ago neither the university for which I now work, nor the one for which I worked until last spring, had university status. And yet, over the years since they were given this status, both have thrived and have in many ways helped to set the agenda for higher education in their countries. It might therefore be argued that the decision to upgrade them was a good one. So does that mean that we should look positively at other proposals for university status?

This is now a significant issue for a number of reasons. In Ireland, as we have discussed here before, there is a growing expectation that the Institutes of Technology in Waterford and Carlow, and also those in Dublin, will become two ‘technological universities’. In England, in what admittedly is now a rather strange world of higher education, there has been a move to accredit private for-profit universities, the first one of which was BPP University College.

Of course what is going on in England is quite different from the ‘technological university’ question in Ireland. But what they both have in common is the question of what criteria should be used to determine any such change of status. In other words, is the term ‘university’ just another word, and is it in fact a restraint of trade to stop any organisation using it? Or could it be justified to restrict its use to academic institutions that have satisfied certain criteria relating to quality and standards? And because we now live in a highly globalized world, can we realistically expect to be able to stop anyone trading as a university, given that all they’ll have to do is find a country somewhere that doesn’t care and lets them set up a virtual operation?

It seems to me that the protection of the designation ‘university’ is vital but in order to do it effectively there needs to be an international consensus. I also believe that the criteria should be based solely on the capacity of the institution to do what universities do, to a high standard; questions about the need for a university in a particular region, or the importance of private competition, shouldn’t enter into it at all.

In the new world of globalised technology-assisted learning and transnational research, universities will play a key role. We should be open to new institutions in this world; but they in turn should continue to be independent bodies seeking to expand knowledge and stimulate critical inquiry.

Junior professing

January 20, 2012

So here we go, then. Trinity College Dublin is looking for some junior law lecturers. But that’s not what the College is saying: its announcement suggests they are looking for two ‘Assistant Professors’. Anyone studying the further particulars may get a sense that the successful candidate is likely to be nearer the beginning than the end of their career, but then again, there is no explicit statement in there to point out that these ‘professors’ are different from those that might work in other Irish universities.

Of course all this is a consequence of the College’s decision, mentioned here some time ago, that from now on all its lecturing staff will be ‘professors’ of one kind or another. While there are one or two other universities in these islands (Warwick and Nottingham specifically) that have adopted a similar practice, for now most have not. I confess I have no strong views in the matter one way or another, but believe that such changes should be made system-wide, not by individual institutions. No matter how good those institutions think they are. Bless them.

*****

PS. A colleague commenting on this post on Twitter has drawn attention to something even more baffling. Leeds University is converting senior lecturers and Readers to ‘Associate Professors’, but is not allowing holders of these posts to call themselves by that title, internally or externally:

‘As part of this process existing Senior Lecturers or Readers will be allowed to retain their existing title or can choose to switch to the new title.  Grade 9 staff in research focused roles may be able to transfer to the Associate Professor title where they can demonstrate that they have made a sufficient contribution to learning and teaching and teaching focused staff may be able to transfer to the new title where they can demonstrate a sufficient contribution to research or scholarship.

The Associate Professor title is linked to the role and not an individual title.  Individuals will continue to be addressed as ‘Dr X’ or other appropriate title and would not be expected to present themselves as ‘Associate Professor X’ (or ‘Professor X’) internally or externally.’

So what  on earth is the point of that?

Shutting it all out

January 17, 2012

Last year I was asked to deliver a lecture to a group of students. As I began my talk, displaying my usual skills of eloquence and persuasiveness, I couldn’t help noticing that a young person in the front row was wearing those little white earphones we have come to see everywhere ever since Apple launched the iPod. Not only was he definitely focused on what must have been his music, his fingers were drumming along on the desk, and there were small but visible nods of his head to accompany the beat. And then I noticed that another student, further back, also had earphones, though in her case I couldn’t tell whether she was equally distracted by music.

I shrugged and got on with it. It’s life. But it’s not just in the classroom. If you walk down any major city street, you will see dozens of people who are more or less oblivious to their surroundings and who are somewhere else entirely, wherever their music is taking them. It’s a modern equivalent of the account by the 19th century German satirical poet, Wilhelm Busch, of an English traveller walking along while looking through a telescope. Busch has him saying:

‘Warum soll ich nicht beim Gehen – sprach er – in die Ferne sehen?
Schön ist es auch anderswo, und hier bin ich sowieso.’

['Why shouldn't I, he said, look into the distance while walking?
It's beautiful elsewhere too, and I'm here anyway']

In fact, Busch’s ‘Mister Pief’ ends up falling into a swamp because he doesn’t see where he’s going. Today’s earphone addicts run similar risks, or worse ones. A recent report found that there has been a significant increase in deaths or serious injuries to pedestrians wearing earphones. Looking occasionally at the conduct of road users with their white earpieces, you can see why.

Personally I love the iPod and its successors, and I will often sit at home with earphones listening to music. But that’s where it should be done. The rest of the time, we should live where we are, and experience what’s there. Including my lectures.

Finding graduate work

January 12, 2012

I was talking recently to a consultant whose job it is to analyse and advise on labour market trends, and what he told me might look worrying to some. The jobs of the future, he said, will go to graduates whose studies prepared them most closely for the work they are hoping to get. So does that mean that unless you want to teach it, you should not study (say) philosophy? Perhaps, he said. But on the other hand, what he suggested really matters is work experience. If you go through your education without any employment-related work, you probably won’t get it when you start to look for it more seriously.

Recent research has in general terms backed that prediction. It found that employers now often prefer to appoint graduates who have work experience, often within the same company. The company conducting the research concluded:

‘Today’s report includes the stark warning to the ‘Class of 2012’ that in a highly competitive graduate job market, new graduates who’ve not had any work experience at all during their time at university have little hope of landing a well-paid job.’

It is also my own experience that universities that facilitate work placements for students, or even require them (as my last university did), are providing their graduates with a considerable advantage in the labour market. It is of course the case that many students work anyway during their time at university. But even those universities that would not have considered work placements to be something they should get involved in might want to think again. It is not that all their programmes should become vocational, but that they should allow the newly acquired academic knowledge of the students to be supported by a better understanding of the world of employment. Attractive thought it may have seemed, insulating students from practical employment-related experience is not a good idea today.


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