The rise of the illiberal university?

Posted May 23, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: society, university

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In 1982 the German-American historian Konrad Jarausch published a fascinating book (Students, Society and Politics in Imperial Germany: the Rise of Academic Illiberalism) in which he charted the rush of Wilhelmine universities and academics into sentimental nationalism and xenophobic intolerance, a rush that later allowed Hitler to secure student support even before he had assumed political power. It was a trend to be found also in other European countries at the time. But in Germany it was remarkable that the stirrings of inward looking nationalism in academic and student circles came just as universities were becoming less elite, and in particular were less the property of the aristocracy. The new academic population gave its support to an uncritical nationalism and shut out contrary voices.

Today’s universities are not on the same trajectory, and yet they too are experiencing tremors of illiberalism.  A recent study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute has revealed that a significant majority of students in the UK (76 per cent) have some sympathy for so-called ‘no platform’ policies, under which certain speakers are banned from speaking on a campus because their views are deemed unpalatable. Curiously the same study revealed that 60 per cent of students think that universities should never limit free speech.

What do we make of that? Nick Hillman, the Director of the Institute, thinks that for some students ‘illiberalism appears to be a way of protecting liberalism.’ But a democratic and open society requires debate, and this requirement is not satisfied by the presentation solely of arguments that the majority approves of or likes. A liberal and tolerant society needs to be tested in robust argument or it will quickly become illiberal. Free speech is not ‘free’ at all if it excludes certain views.

Today’s university population will, much more still than in Wilhelmine Germany, supply the dominant leadership in all layers of society for the next generation, and its values will inform our future. A society that only ever wants to hear what it already believes is hugely vulnerable to something it may think it is warding off. It is time to recover the truly liberal university.

Higher education – is competition always the answer?

Posted May 16, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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The United Kingdom government, acting in this case for England only (as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems), has just issued its White Paper on higher education, setting out its policy agenda. At the heart of this agenda is a simple diagnosis of the sector’s problems: that there is ‘insufficient competition and a lack of informed choice.’

To correct this, the British government is planning a new system that will make it easier for what it calls ‘challenger institutions’ – i.e. private sector for-profit colleges – to enter the market. They will have the opportunity to secure degree-awarding powers and to call themselves ‘universities’. The anticipated result of this (and related) reforms is summarised as follows:

‘With greater diversity in the sector, more high quality entrants, and increased choice for students, our primary goal is to raise the overall level of quality.’

The tone of the whole White Paper reinforces this point: that the existing system is a cartel, that new providers should be allowed to enter, that the strategic development of higher education should follow students’ ‘informed choices’, that the tendency to under-value teaching (when set against research) needs to stop. Student choices, according to the White Paper, are made effective through inter-institutional competition, and better information for student applicants. Meanwhile the pursuit of global recognition for ‘elite’ universities should prompt the further concentration of research in a smaller set of institutions.

Most stakeholders have reacted negatively or cautiously to the proposals in the White Paper. However, if they are implemented a major part of the higher education framework in the UK and beyond will start to look very different from what it once was. This involves not just organisational but intellectual and pedagogical  aspects, elements that have not received half as much attention as the debate around the institutional landscape.

As I have suggested before in this blog, we need to get a lucid and agreed statement on what higher eduction is actually about. Otherwise university reform is just a process of bureaucratic and institutional adjustment, focused strongly on inputs rather than results. There is an important place for competition in higher education, but primarily this should be a competition of ideas rather than of institutions.

Some of the objectives set out in the White Paper are reasonable, and they may spark an interesting debate in the global higher education community. But whether the English university system will become a better one as a result remains to be seen.

The value of student engagement

Posted May 9, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, students, university

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One of the questions the academic community should be asking itself more regularly is what exactly they think is the student’s stake in the higher education framework, beyond that of a learner. Some of this debate would probably these days focus on whether students are, or are not, consumers or customers, and therefore whether they have a right to insist on something like contractual performance from their institutions and teachers. Others might ask whether students have what we might describe as democratic rights of co-determination – a perspective we pursued a little in the review I chaired of Scottish higher education governance, and which has recently been explored in a very interesting Irish report.

One way or another, all this is tied up with how we can secure student engagement – a commitment to learning going beyond managing the curriculum in order to secure a degree. This is something universities do try to encourage in a general way, but perhaps not always in a principled manner, because we have not really settled what the principle is. Some recent studies have revealed one consequence of student disengagement: what could be a gradual death of the classroom experience, as technology gives students access to material independent of their teachers and the socialising effect of classes is no longer recognised or appreciated. So students simply no longer turn up, many of them opting to undertake what are in essence correspondence courses, with very little if any engagement with the corporate entity of their university.

In an age in which the concept of stakeholders in this and that and everything is ubiquitous, we need to do better in securing an understanding of the student’s stake in his or her learning process and the institution that offers it. We have not yet got very far in this, all appearances to the contrary.

Bookend?

Posted May 2, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, literature, society

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Let’s not personalise this, so no names. But a few years ago I read about a group of academics protesting at their university about some restructuring or other then taking place. Their ire was particularly directed at one of the university’s senior management team, an academic who, they claimed, didn’t have a single book in his office. More recently at another university, or so it is claimed, another member of the senior team stated openly that he didn’t see the need for a university library any more.

But it’s not just university heads and their teams. The Independent newspaper recently reported that at an English university some academics are finding it hard to persuade their students to read books. One professor suggested:

‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.’

Others have reported that Victorian literature is disappearing from the curricula of English degree courses because the novels are simply too long – nobody could be expected to read them cover to cover.

Of course it’s not just universities. A couple of years ago in America the Pew Research Center found that 23 per cent of adults had not read a single book (in whatever form, including digital and audio) in the preceding year. Some 35 years earlier that figure would have been 8 per cent.

So what is happening? Are books dead? I doubt that: in recent years there has been a drop in book sales in some countries, but more than off-set by significant increases in others. Nevertheless, people’s engagement with them is changing, and because you can read things in unusual ways and take them from unusual sources it is hard to gauge changes in reading patterns. And of course a ‘book’ is a more complex item now, as it is not necessarily something printed on paper between covers.

I would be more concerned if the choice of books we might read were all about volume and length. There is of course an important place in literature for the short story or the novella. But it is important that we take the time and make the effort to engage with ideas that occupy more than 60 pages. There may be all sorts of reasons for including or not including Charles Dickens on a university curriculum: but the fact that his books tend to be longer than 500 pages should not be one of them.

Are universities useless in supporting economic development?

Posted April 25, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: economy, higher education, university

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We have previously considered in this blog whether university programmes of teaching and research should be aligned with economic needs, and there is a variety of views on this point. But a lecturer in St Andrews University, Dr Ross Brown, has now claimed to have discovered in his research that regardless of whether universities should do this or not, they are not effective if they do. According to a report of his research on the university’s website, Dr Brown said:

‘The strongly engrained view of universities as some kind of innovation panacea is deeply flawed. As occurred in the past when inward investment was seen as a ‘silver bullet’ for promoting economic development, university research commercialisation has been granted an equally exaggerated role in political and policy making circles. Universities are not quasi economic development agencies.’

In this short quote there are about 20 different highly arguable points, but the one Dr Brown is particularly promoting is that universities don’t materially support economic development, in that research commercialisation doesn’t have a major impact.

For a start, I don’t think I know of anyone who has ever believed that research commercialisation is the key to economic development. It is a long game, which has the capacity, often over an extended period of many years, to create value for the researchers’ institutions and for those who funded the work (often the taxpayer). When that happens – and it only happens in a minority of cases – the economic impact will often be somewhere else, typically in the place where the last major investor runs their business.

The reason why universities prompt economic development has almost nothing to do with the commercialisation of research. Universities create a cluster of intellectual capital in a place which in turn has the capacity to support the economy: skilled graduates, leadership, facilities and infrastructure, a potential for value-adding partnerships in industry R&D projects – these constitute the raw material for economic development in particular areas. Nor is it hard to find the evidence. There are truckloads of studies that show the impact on value added and economic growth contributed to regions by resident universities; indeed one such study was done by Dr Brown’s own university. There are also studies that show how some regions fail to grow economically where they do not have universities.

I must confess I have not read the original study by Dr Brown, and it may of course be that in it he pursues a quite different argument from that presented in the summary report. Even there he is quoted as recognising the impact of universities, but seems to think that this is not a critical element in assessing their capacity to stimulate growth. In reality it is crucial. The recent Aberdeen City Region Deal is almost wholly based on the capacity of the region’s universities to promote innovation. While I must declare an interest here of course, I very much doubt that the assessment is wrong.

Universities are of course not everything in the drive for economic growth. But they are a very big something.

Alphabetical fate

Posted April 19, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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A good few years ago I wrote an academic paper with a colleague. We thought it was pretty good. While we did more or less equal amounts of writing, I had done most of the research and so we agreed easily that my name would come first. This was not however the view of the journal in which we wanted the piece to appear. They agreed to publish it, but insisted that my fellow author’s name had to come first.

Why was this? Was he the better academic? Was he better known in our field? Hell, was he better looking than me? None of that. His surname began with the letter ‘B’, mine with a ‘V’. That was it.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a report on research that showed that people with a name beginning with letters from A to M were more likely to earn more money than those nearer the bottom of the alphabet, more likely to be elected if they were politicians, more likely to be university leaders, more likely to win the Nobel Prize.

In my own case, I could of course argue that my surname officially (under German practice) begins with a ‘P’ rather than a ‘V’, but why bother, I end up in the lower part of the alphabet either way.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that in this most intellectual of environments – in the academy of higher education – the odds are also stacked in favour of those higher up in the alphabet. When we tell ourselves that we are always objective and uninfluenced by irrelevant factors, someone might perhaps suggest to us to think again; though ideally that someone’s name should begin with an ‘A’.

Creative dissent versus social inclusion?

Posted April 11, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: economy, education, higher education, politics

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For anyone interested in universities, it is worth keeping an eye on the speeches and addresses of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Right from the start of his presidency he has made regular incursions into higher education policy, and has in particular bemoaned the dominant influence as he sees it of market-oriented economic theory.

Last week he returned to this theme in a speech given at the annual conference in Galway of the European Universities Association. He suggested that policy-makers in Europe and elsewhere have this perspective on higher education:

‘[They] tend to view universities in a rather utilitarian way, as foundations of new knowledge and innovative thinking, within the confines of existing trade, commercial and economic paradigms, paradigms that are fading but not without damage to social cohesion.’

According to the President, this is the ‘language and rhetoric of the speculative market’. He added:

‘Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression.’

University studies, the President suggested, must be accompanied by the ‘capacity to dissent’.

It is not hard to find this vision of the academy to be rather enticing. But there may be a difficult fact that would compromise the vision of universities as institutions with the primary mission of stimulating creative dissent. The whole package of resources and facilities that the state or its taxpayers or indeed education’s consumers make available is provided on a rather different understanding: that a university education, and the resulting degree, will yield a recognised qualification, and through it employment, and that it will sustain economic growth and technological progress. It is fundamentally utilitarian in nature, and it is so because a university degree has become the essential foundation of growth and prosperity. If you wish to see universities as places of counter-establishment dissent and indifferent creativity, then you need to restore universities as places educating only a small minority (and probably an elite) of the population.

Scholars from medieval times to the 19th century were in a very different place, literally and metaphorically. It is most unlikely that we could (or maybe even should) detach higher education from today’s economic and social targets. But we can still ensure that its practitioners have a new and profound integrity within the fields that they address and that its students expand their minds as well as their opportunities.


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