Call the doctor

Posted June 18, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society, university

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In the circles in which I once moved when I was still an active law lecturer, one of the regular questions colleagues from the United States of America would ask is whether, with a J.D. degree (‘Juris Doctor‘), they were entitled to style themselves ‘Dr’. This often led to long discussions about how academic qualifications should be used by their holders to declare their status.

I was awarded my own Ph.D. in 1982, and to be honest I immediately had my university letterhead amended to include my new title. And when I had done that I felt slightly sheepish, and for the rest of my career tended to avoid reference to my doctorate except in necessary contexts (as on my curriculum vitae).

Anyway, over the past few days there has been something of a Twitterstorm about academic doctorates. It began with the historian Fern Riddell, who last week tweeted as follows:

‘My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert, and my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible. I worked hard to earn my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.’

This earned her a number of critical responses, some saying that she was arrogant and was holding herself out to be better than others. But Dr Riddell was having none of that, and started the hashtag #ImmodestWomen. So before you could say ‘trending’ her tweet produced a tsunami of others, mostly women, proclaiming their entitlement to publish their academic status. Though somewhere in there we also had a man – a surgeon – proudly proclaiming his status as ‘Mr’, which as you know is the title of qualification and honour for that profession.

So there are two issues caught up in this. The first is to do with recognising and proclaiming expertise; the second is about recognising women as equally meriting such recognition.

Regarding the first of these, I guess that someone with long training and established expertise in some field outside of the academy might ask why academics merit titular recognition where others don’t. This might be less of an issue in other cultures, where titles more routinely display status in non-academic professions: ‘Herr Direktor’, ‘Frau Oberamtsrat’. But in British (or indeed Irish) society, should academic qualifications uniquely be attached to a name, where other qualifications are not?

On the other hand, in the context of gender it has taken a long time for women to secure easy recognition of expertise and leadership in universities; even now it is not unusual for heavily qualified women to be treated unequally and unfairly- sexism in the academy is far from dead, as a previous post by guest blogger Dr Anna Notaro also found.

So, on balance, I say to the #ImmodestWomen, go for it, claim what is your right.

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Brexit and higher education – the Irish question resolved?

Posted June 11, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, students, university

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Intractable discussions about how to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland may be continuing, but one element of the relationship between Ireland and the UK post-Brexit appears to be capable of a positive resolution. At a recent meeting in London which I also attended, Sam Gyimah, the UK Minister of State for Universities, stated that the British government would continue to treat Irish students as domestic students for tuition fee purposes, provided that the Irish Government reciprocated and also classified British students as domestic students in Ireland.

Of course Mr Gyimah can in these discussions only speak for England, and we must wait and see what happens in the devolved jurisdictions.

The move is important not least because, since the Brexit vote, fewer Irish students have applied to study in the UK. There are significant opportunities for developing higher education partnerships between these islands, and relative frictionless student migration will help.

One small step in the Brexit complexity, but not an unimportant one.

A brief history of hate

Posted June 4, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
       Robert Frost, 1920

As a fairly regular user of Twitter, I frequently encounter contributors whose main motivation is clearly a desire to express their hatred of someone or something. They are not of course blazing some new trail. The Bible, classical Greek history, the Middle Ages – all are full of tales of hate and revenge, of senseless feuds and vendettas. Hatred is a recurring theme of Shakespeare’s plays, and indeed the literature of most countries. It came to define a key part of the last century.

Hate is not new. But what has changed is that it has found a much more accessible platform in today’s social media and it is changing who we are, just a little. It motivates voters, it frames argument (even intellectual argument), it feeds conspiracy theories, it destroys reason.

I’m not sure Frost is right, however; at least not about our current age. The hate of the 20th century may have been ice cold, but today’s burns with trivial passion fuelled by inconsequential bitterness. In the academic world, we would do well to keep alive the flame of reason. It is what we are there for.

The academy in politics?

Posted May 29, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics

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I first developed a strong interest in politics in my mid-teens. At the time I was in a German secondary school, and the then West German Economics Minister was Professor Karl Schiller. Schiller was an academic economist of some distinction, and he became a key figure, first of the CDU-SPD ‘grand coalition’ under Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, and then of the SPD-FDP coalition government of Willy Brandt. He was known for policies that he summarised with the slogan ‘as much competition as possible, as much planning as necessary.’

Right now, as various professors are considered for the job of Prime Minister of Italy, it is maybe apposite to reflect on the role of academics in career politics. There have been a few politicians who, when their political careers looked to be over, easily settled into academic life: Larry Summers and Roy Jenkins are examples. Some have travelled in the opposite direction, but not many: apart from Karl Schiller, good examples would be Ireland’s last three Presidents: Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Is this because universities are seen as hothouses for theory rather than operational action? Or is it the case that, as one commentator has suggested, ‘many very clever people would make very bad politicians.’

The role of academics as political advisers is widely accepted, but not so much their capacity for political leadership. In a world that is becoming hugely complex in economic, social and technological contexts, would academic politicians have the capacity for a better, or worse, understanding of these complexities? Or should the academy stay away from this sort of thing altogether?

Who wants to be a billionaire?

Posted May 22, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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An extraordinary proportion – nearly a quarter – of the world’s billionaires are graduates of ten American universities. In addition, a large proportion of these billionaires started off rich, went to universities endowed with huge resources and social cachet, and became even richer. This is a world in which generally perceived institutional excellence is locked into social advantage, where rich graduates donate large funds to their already well-funded universities and ensure the continuation of a particular cycle of elitism, which is reinforced by a widespread belief that these ‘elite’ universities represent the best and only viable model of excellence.

If our societies are really to be more meritocratic and egalitarian, it is vital that we should move away from this kind of institutional elitism. The universities listed are all great institutions, but they do not represent the only acceptable quality mark of excellence. It is therefore increasingly important for modern systems of higher education to run with a variety of models, and to fund these to level at which they can pursue genuine innovation – and to secure a more inclusive system fit for the future.

What do you want from your university? Skills, knowledge? Or just a degree?

Posted May 14, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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There is no shortage of studies suggesting that university graduates benefit significantly from their qualification as they progress through their careers. In 2015 it was suggested that the value of a university degree could be as much as £500,000 over a lifetime. If this is true, it is still not really clear what exactly confers this additional cash benefit: the knowledge acquired during studies? The skills, vocation-specific or transferable? Or is it maybe just the actual degree certificate, as an entry qualification into higher-paying jobs?

As long as we are committed to the degree as the currency of higher education qualification we run the risk of maintaining a club, even if the membership of that club has been growing. The degree certificate is the membership card. We can argue all we like about what universities should be doing pedagogically if all the student, or for that matter the employer, cares about is the piece of paper.

University degree programmes have a fairly high level of structured uniformity. They require student participation over a fixed period (though the visible extent of that participation on a day-to-day basis may vary greatly), with a small number of fixed entry and exit points. There is some flexibility for those using non-traditional versions of the product, such as distance or online learning, but the model is still recognisably the same. This may be appropriate (and continue to be so) for school leavers, but is this uniformity necessary for a mature learner population or others using higher education in a non-traditional way?

The time may have come to re-consider the importance of degrees as the sole quality mark of higher education, because doing so may allow us to focus much more on the content and purpose of what we teach rather than the formal framework in which learning takes place.  Such a review may be even more appropriate in the light of recent doubts as to whether university degrees really do still confer the financial rewards once considered certain. It may be that in 2018 university degrees do not need to be the sole, or even main, offering in our institutions. It is at least worth a discussion.

You say you want a revolution…

Posted May 7, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: technology, society, history

Tags: , , ,

Anyone following contemporary debates about the future of work and civilisation will, sooner or later (and very probably sooner), be listening to comments about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. It’s everywhere, and while its exact meaning may not always be clear, what is constantly repeated is that it is happening now and is changing absolutely everything. Everything is being digitised, brought online, automated, and subjugated to robotics. Your job and mine will go, we will be replaced by machines that will not only do the job better, but will also understand better than we can how the job needs to evolve. The jobs we may apply for 10 years from now don’t on the whole exist yet, so we can’t properly prepare for them, and the best we can do is acquire every possible transferable skill and find out what will still need real human interaction; unless robots get better than us at that too. And watch that toaster, it’s online, smart, and may be planning to do away with you so it can watch daytime TV rather than bother with your nutrition.

That sort of thing.

As with everything else, the best thing to do when you encounter breathless hype is to take a step back and think about what you are being told. There is no doubt that the digital world is moving at a fast pace and is changing how we do things: how we communicate, how we analyse, how we adapt our technology to improve safety and efficiency, how we access news. The ‘internet of things’ is creating smart gadgets and appliances. Big data is yielding insights and solutions that eluded us in the past.

But the use of science and technology to effect social and industrial change is not new, nor are we now witnessing profound and speedy change for the first time in history. The development of the printing press and the use of paper to allow high-volume dissemination of its outputs probably produced a bigger social upheaval than anything we are seeing today: suddenly information and knowledge were no longer the private property of the elite, and absolutely everything changed. The (first) Industrial Revolution totally changed the way we live and work, in particular by opening up mass transport and urbanisation, putting an end to agrarian societies with feudal structures, and ushering in the age of capitalism with its attendant consequences, good and bad. The two world wars of the 20th century changed global politics beyond recognition. Contraception changed social interaction and opened up the workforce.

It may be interesting to observe that while a typical person, not from any social elite, would have had a fundamentally different life in the 19th century from what a similar person might have had 100 years earlier, the life we live now is not so fundamentally different from that experienced in the post-war 20th century. The technology has changed and allows us to do things that we couldn’t have done before or which would have been much more laborious, but socially and culturally our experiences are still recognisably similar. What is it that makes us think that the next few years will be so totally different?

We have always been bad at predicting the future, particularly where technology is involved. This is in part because we sometimes predict the future with the same kind of sensibility we apply to science fiction, including the desire to get a thrill from something really horrible. So when Elon Musk makes our flesh creep at the prospect of the spread of malignant artificial intelligence, he is tapping into the same fascination that gave us the Terminator movie franchise a couple of decades earlier. And to be honest, I’ve got sick of the statement (by now a real cliché) that 40% (or whatever your preferred percentage is) of jobs in demand in 10 years time don’t exist today. Well, maybe they don’t, but history doesn’t support this proposition: what job known to you now didn’t exist 10 years ago? Jobs may change in what they demand of those doing them, but that is a natural process of evolution.

This blog post is not an invitation to go into denial about the pace of change today. There is of course a huge technological, digital, fast-paced evolution taking place. Google, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla – even the possibly departed Cambridge Analytica – are changing all sorts of things in our lives. But how adapt to that, and how we reform society to contain the risks, are issues to be debated and decided in a sober frame of mind. In that process, we do well to look at some of the social fundamentals, such as how we can protect the integrity of truth in the face of all-out assaults by those wanting to manipulate us, and perhaps worry a little less about what our toaster might get up to. Even if the latter is more fun, in a Hitchcockian sort of way.