Archive for January 2013

Mr Attlee’s children in the academy

January 29, 2013

In the course of a recent conversation on the margins of a public function, a prominent UK businessman suggested to me that British academics are ‘mostly the intellectual disciples of Clement Attlee’. I thought this an interesting comment, made more interesting to me because, in my family, we have recently had lively discussions about the impact of the Attlee government of 1945-51. I suspect that few would disagree that this government represented a watershed in British political history, but was its influence as great in the academy as my friend had suggested? And even if so, does any such influence still persist?

Perhaps the basis for such an assertion lies in the fact that, in the light of the economic convulsions of recent years and in particular of the reckless behaviour by banks that helped unleash the storm, some commentators (including academics) have been calling for policy responses that would not have looked out of place on the agenda of this post-War British government. Or would they?

As many readers will know, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party was elected and secured a large majority in Parliament in 1945, much to the surprise of many political observers who had expected an easy win by Winston Churchill. However this election outcome was heavily trailed by the interest shown in the Beveridge report of 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). That report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. The report had been an instant bestseller (most unusual for a paper published by government), and this suggested that there was an appetite in Britain for more radical economic and social reform than was likely to be offered by the Conservatives.

In the event the Attlee government did a number of significant things, the most important of which in domestic policy were probably the large-scale nationalisation of utilities, public transport companies and key industries, and the fundamental reform of health and welfare (including the creation of the National Health Service, and the commitment to universal benefits). Its actions in foreign and defence policy were also significant, though they might look counter-intuitive to a present day audience: the strengthening of Britain’s defence structures, including the development of nuclear weapons, and some contradictory moves affecting the ‘Empire’ – independence for the Indian sub-continent, but the reinforcement of the African colonies. The Attlee government also initiated the programme leading to the development of nuclear power in energy generation.

How much of this is influential today? Wondering about the extent to which today’s academics (and others) are aware in any detail of Attlee’s policies, I conducted some totally unscientific surveys on Twitter and amongst those I have recently met in university life. A good few know nothing at all of Attlee or his government, except perhaps his name. Others express strong support for him, but seem to link him (or his government) solely with the NHS. Others indicate admiration of a wider range of his policies, while stating they were right for their time but perhaps would be less so today. Others are clearly committed followers, and some committed opponents.

It could be argued that today’s Britain is what it is as the complex legacy of both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, with maybe a little Tony Blair. Indeed Margaret Thatcher herself was known, at a personal level, to be an admirer of Attlee (which she confirmed in her autobiography). It is indeed hard to deny that the actions of the post-War Labour government changed many things, not least in that the number of those living in poverty declined dramatically between the early 1930s and the early 1950s. The government undertook the kind of major structural changes needed in post-War Britain to ensure that it had an emancipated, educated, healthy population.

Ironically, perhaps the least successful Attlee project, but the one that still has the greatest resonance in Britain, was the NHS – which perhaps produced better levels of public health, but over time left Britain with an over-bureaucratised health service offering visibly lower quality of care than in almost any comparable country; but that would be strongly denied by a large proportion of the population, making health reform very difficult, no matter what ideological direction it comes from.

The other major project – nationalisation – has not had such a lasting impact, and was fairly successfully reversed by Margaret Thatcher. The idea expressed in 1945 in a phrase borrowed from Lenin, that the state should own ‘the commanding heights of the economy’, would not now be endorsed by any major political party. But something of the spirit may have survived in the view that still finds significant resonance, that the state and its agencies should regulate a good deal of economic activity; the suggestion being that much more regulation would have avoided the recent recession, an assertion that may have a good bit of popular support but actually not a whole lot of real evidence to back it.

But back to the academy: is it full of Attlee’s disciples? It’s not perhaps a question that can be answered in any useful way. There is no shortage of articles by key academics suggesting there was something heroic about the Attlee government. But that doesn’t make the universities ideological reservations for 1945-style socialists. What might be more interesting would be to ask whether analysts of British society today believe that the issues facing the United Kingdom are structurally similar to those that obtained in 1945. Clearly they are not. The UK, and its constituent parts, has problems it needs to address, but they are not the same as those that prompted the Beveridge report. Attlee, and his ministers, remain important figures in the history of change after the Second World War, and they undoubtedly still attract academic interest, as indeed they should. But are we all Attlee’s children? No, not really – the academy is more diverse than that, and in the end also more modern. I doubt we are together and in uniformity the disciples of any particular person or movement; and that is how it should be.

Higher education and the school dimension

January 22, 2013

The path that takes a young person to a university, or that diverts them from it, starts very early in life. It has been said that the best predictor of higher education success – far better than school examination results – is a person’s post code. The environment in which people experience life and educational formation from a very early age will often determine their level of educational ambition. By the time a young person has reached the age at which he or she might complete a university admissions form, their likelihood of doing so has long been decided. Universities seeking to extend access to disadvantaged students must begin with schools – preferably primary schools, or even with pre-school children.

This obvious fact has now been emphasised in England by the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), the body established to ensure universities charging higher tuition fees implement effective access strategies. In a guidance document issued earlier this month, OFFA Director Professor Les Ebdon said:

‘OFFA has long emphasised the important contribution that institutions can make in helping to raise aspirations and attainment among bright students in schools and communities where very few progress to higher education. However, my meetings with the sector to date suggest that there needs to be a further step-change in the efforts devoted to this area. So let there be no doubt – sustained, well-targeted outreach such as summer schools, masterclasses and mentoring can be very effective and we want to see more of it.’

In an accompanying press release, Professor Ebdon indicated that pupils as young as seven years old should be targeted by access strategies.

Leaving aside whether the English framework of student loan-funded tuition fees is a good idea, it is easy to agree with the OFFA Director that potential access students need to become familiar and comfortable with the idea of a university and the look and feel of a university campus from a very early age; as do their families, who often need to be persuaded that this is a good ambition for their children.

But this also reminds us that really effective access programmes are very expensive, if they are to be done well. I still hear university leaders claim that access students damage university results and performance – which mainly tells me that the university leaders in question have not understood how access programmes really work. As the statistics show, British universities are on the whole still quite bad at securing greater participation by disadvantaged groups. It is also possible that in Scotland too many think that free tuition is a support for access, which on the whole it is not. It is important that international best practice in this area is considered and taken on board; and right at the top of the list of desirable strategies must be a proper engagement with young people from the time (and from before the time) they first enter the education system.

Rolling in money

January 21, 2013

The scene: Heathrow airport on Saturday, where I was waiting (with countless others) for a flight out of London, after a little snow closed most of it down; some bemused American travellers couldn’t believe that this really major airport was so easily overwhelmed by what they thought was a really minor amount of snow, but more of that another time.

Anyway, back to the scene. Four children were amusing themselves by rolling two-Euro coins along the floor, with the target of hitting a house of cards constructed some five or six feet away. When their flight was called unexpectedly, the parents called them away urgently. The children asked to pick up the coins first. ‘No time’, the father shouted. ‘Anyway, they’re only Euros.’

This is what they left behind (subsequently placed in a charity box).

lost euros

lost euros

The Irish higher education ‘landscape’

January 17, 2013

As part of the process that will, we are told, produce a newly reconfigured Irish higher education system, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has produced another document pointing further in the direction of where it would like the system to go. In this latest document, entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, the HEA sets out its intentions as follows.

‘System reconfiguration is aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students. A key objective is to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders envisaged in the National Strategy.’

In fairness to the HEA, its objectives have been stated repeatedly in previous documents and follow a clearly discernible path. It wants fewer higher education institutions; and in particular it wants mergers amongst the institutes of technology, the absorption of teacher training colleges into universities, and a much higher level of specialisation in all institutions including universities. It believes that this will remove or lessen inefficiencies and produce what it calls ‘scale’, or critical mass. It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure. It also wants the development of a centralised national strategy that will inform individual institutional direction. All of this is to lead to what the document describes as a ‘co-ordinated and consolidated higher education system’.

The objectives being pursued here have become part of the public narrative of higher education in Ireland, and are repeated by officials and politicians in a manner to suggest that they are obviously appropriate. But whether they really are appropriate, and certainly whether they are necessary, has not ever really been established through the presentation of anything that might count as evidence. Rather, a set of largely unproven assumptions – with some assumptions that have been shown to be highly questionable if not simply wrong, such as that of ‘scale’ – have taken on iconic status. They are driving policy making, and are threatening to create a new layer of bureaucratic control. They are set to replace the traditional principle of institutional autonomy, on the again quite unproven assertion that this no longer serves the interests of Irish higher education or society.

It would be unfair to suggest that all these plans are wrong. Coordinating institutional objectives with national priorities is potentially useful. Encouraging strategic collaboration is right. But the picture emerging here goes beyond that, and reveals a higher education ‘system’ that is structured to fit a centralised bureaucratic model.

The HEA has overall been a good friend of the higher education sector, but it has allowed itself to be persuaded that something is wrong where there are no real signs of anything untoward. In consequence attention that could usefully be directed to some much more obviously beneficial reform, particularly given the changing pedagogical and demographic trends of recent years, is now being focused on a structural reconfiguration that hardly seems called for and that could actually undermine innovation and creativity within the sector.

Probably this path is now set, and there are few signs that there is any resistance from the institutions themselves. I still doubt it is the right path, however. Furthermore, the journey down this path is beginning just as other countries, for example Germany, are moving in the opposite direction, as they have come to realise the importance of university autonomy. It’s a strange world.

Not so retiring

January 15, 2013

I recently attended a small discussion with a group of United States university professors, and I suddenly realised that all of them were over 60 years old, and about half of them well over 65. All were however still active as full-time teachers and researchers. That all of these academics were in this age group was a coincidence, but in the United Kingdom (or Ireland) it could not have happened at all. The reason why it can in the United States is because mandatory retirement for academics was abolished in 1993. Some argue against the retention of this practice – sometimes using arguments that used to be deployed in very similar form against the idea of allowing married women to continue to work – but on the whole the principle is now well established in America.

Over here we are still much less flexible, and usually the system forces older people out of employment, except to the extent that it may not always prevent their working in return for receiving much less or even no pay. But leaving aside the fairness issue, do we not in any case need to re-examine our retirement assumptions? The idea of the old age pension originated in Bismarck’s 1889 law Gesetz zur Alters- und Invaliditätssicherung. This kicked in at the age of 70, at a time when the average life expectancy of those who had reached this age at all was 73. In Britain pensions were introduced in 1909, and again the pension age was 70. It has been calculated that if one were to apply the same actuarial considerations to today’s population, the pension age would be 76 (some have even suggested it would be higher, possibly over 80).

The retirement age has become a major casus belli in discussions about social benefits and in industrial relations negotiations. In France, improbably, the retirement age has actually been lowered recently. But leaving aside what one might call the welfare state aspects to this question, it could be asked whether we are well served by a system that forces people out of the labour market because of their age, and more particularly, whether in our universities we are impoverishing the quality of our pedagogical and academic offering. Is it time to think about abolishing mandatory retirement in our system of higher education?

Linguistic crepusculum?

January 9, 2013

If you are an English speaker, then you have available to you a usable vocabulary that is significantly larger than that of other languages. It is estimated that English has maybe 1 million words, which could be nearly five times that of French. Furthermore, it is thought that a new word is added every two hours or so. But how many of all these do we use?

Of course my readers are intelligent, sophisticated people, so maybe you and I will use some 50,000 words, and understand at least as many again. But it is also thought that some may have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words. In one piece of field work that was presented to me about eight years ago, it was estimated that many people’s average active vocabulary – the number of words he or she would use on a regular basis – may be as low as 1,500.

There is also some evidence that the English language’s capacity for the active use of synonyms, whereby a variety of words is regularly used with the same or a similar meaning, is being eroded. A distinguished person is probably now rarely described as eximious, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is probably not often called hamose, nor would be be described as an hallion. But that means we are depriving the language, and ourselves, of some wonderful opportunities. An illustration of this was provided by the American linguist Richard Lederer in his introduction to the Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate:

‘One of the happiest features of possessing a capacious vocabulary is the opportunity to insult your enemies with impunity.  While the maddening crowd gets mad with exhausted epithets such as ‘You rotten pig’ and ‘You dirty  bum,’ you can acerbate, deprecate, derogate, and excoriate your nemesis with a battalion of laser-precise pejoratives.  You can brand him or her a grandiloquent popinjay, venal pettifogger, nefarious miscreant, flagitious recidivist, sententious blatherskite, mawkish ditherer, arrant peculator, irascible misanthrope, hubristic narcissist, feckless sycophant, vituperative virago, vapid yahoo, eructative panjandrum, saturnine misanthrope, antediluvian troglodyte, maudlin poetaster, splenetic termagant, pernicious quidnunc, rancorous anchorite, perfidious mountebank, or irascible curmudgeon.’

So are we now reduced to a small selection of often four-letter dressed expletives? And is everything desirable just, well, ‘nice’?

If all this is so, what are the causes? What can be done to maintain English as a peculiarly rich language with a subtle and varied vocabulary? In particular, how can we harness the many opportunities now afforded by information technology to ensure that it is a platform for verbal sophistication? This is a cause worth fighting for.

The un-networked internet

January 8, 2013

Here’s an interesting – and crazy – development. If you were to scroll through the posts in this blog, you would find that in many of them I have linked to newspaper reports relevant to the topic. What I didn’t know is that my doing so may have exposed me to a very significant financial risk. Why? Because the newspapers, in Ireland at least, have decided that they own the copyright to the URLs of any articles or items in their publications, and that they are entitled to charge anyone who publishes the URL. Let me be quite specific: this is not about an unauthorised reproduction of a newspaper article or any part of it; this is about mentioning the URL link only.

So for example, yesterday morning one Irish newspaper published a report on a heatwave in Australia. If you want to read about it – or since we have Australian readers here, if you want to verify its accuracy – you can find it right here. Go and have a look. But because I have just given you the link, I have, apparently, infringed that newspaper’s copyright and am now liable to be sued. More particularly, they may claim I should pay them €300 for providing the link. How do I know all this? Because the body representing Irish newspapers, National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), recently decided to take action against the charity Women’s Aid (of all people) because the latter had on their website linked to newspaper articles about them. Thankfully the charity is being supported in its defence pro bono by Dublin solicitor Simon McGarr.

If you think this is mad, then you are absolutely right. If we all have a copyright to URLs of sites we control – and it’s not just newspapers, obviously, who have websites – and if we can prevent others from mentioning these URLs by demanding stupid money before allowing them to do so, then we can bring the whole internet crashing down. The URL link is the heart of the world wide web; take it away, and there’s nothing left. This could become a particular issue in the academic world, in which the free exchange of internet links has become an important tool.

For the record, NNI have claimed that they would only want to prevent the commercial use of such links, but that’s nonsense because their chosen target, Women’s Aid, clearly was not in the business of commercial gain; and the charity did not reproduce any of the content of these newspaper articles, just the URL. NNI say they have no objection to the ‘personal’ use of internet links, but what on earth does that mean? Is my blog post here ‘personal’?  In any case, on what basis would anyone think that they owned a copyright to a URL? Or do I also have rights in relation to my postal address? Can I charge anyone who lists my address for whatever purpose, or indeed those who put it on an envelope? Or can I charge anyone who sends me an email for using my email address without my permission?

Of course, maybe I’m going at this the wrong way. I’ve just calculated that there have been, since June 2008, just under 6,000 links on other websites to this blog. Should I perhaps be writing out bills to the tune of €1.8 million? And by the way, roughly €7,000 worth of those bills would be going to newspapers who linked to my blog, in the run of their commercial business.

I am a genuine supporter of the quality Irish press, who do a great job and maintain some really good newspapers. But this particular move is beyond silly.


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