The travails of student politics

Posted September 27, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, students, university

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I entered university as a student slightly later than most of my contemporaries. After I left school I decided to take a job rather than become a student. I did this for a couple of years before changing my mind and deciding to study law. I started in Trinity College Dublin on a bright October morning in 1974, and decided that I’d probably learn more about TCD by taking a tour organised by what was then called the Student Representative Council. We were given a student handbook and asked to study this before the actual tour.

The handbook was totally wonderful, featuring as it did two motivational articles, one each by the SRC President and the Vice-President. Except that the two of them didn’t agree on much. The President was a key activist in the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), which in turn saw itself as mostly following the teachings of Chairman Mao, and later Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha. It liked armed liberation struggles (including in Northern Ireland), but was not much into liberal decadence. The same President once suggested during a debate on gay rights that this wasn’t much of an issue in Mao’s China, meaning that that was the end of the matter. His contribution to the student manual was to call for a struggle to free the working classes globally and beyond. He believed that it was every student’s duty to oppose the capitalist bourgeoisie, including its placemen in university management.

The Deputy President was an altogether different man; indeed he more or less personified the ‘liberal decadence’ so disliked by his President. His contribution to the manual consisted of exhortations to enjoy sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, in whichever order suited.

The year that followed this induction saw some major actions in the university, in pursuit of the various ideals of both student leaders. Without necessarily suggesting I pursued all of his proposals, I much preferred the Deputy President; he was without doubt rather good company, and it may be worth saying in passing that he was later a known figure in Irish broadcasting circles long after the President dropped into complete obscurity. But in a year off occupations and protests and marches and demonstrations, most students got on with their studies, many of them completely oblivious of all or any of this.

But are student politics irrelevant? One key moment in all of the fun back in 1974 was during a debate organised by the SRC, which featured a motion that ‘we’ should liberate South Africa’. It was not a bad debate, and it included really interesting contributions from leaders of the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, one of these suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that maybe the TCD Student Representative Council,  regardless of how it voted on the motion, would not itself liberate South Africa; what would matter more would be persuading the influential western middle classes that this was a goal worth pursuing. There was complete silence at this suggestion, as students digested the horrible possibility that they were not in the vanguard of liberation. There was no applause.

The issues around student politics are maybe not that different today, as this recent assessment by a current student indicates. Today’s student leaders still sometimes manage to fight battles that don’t particularly resonate with the masses and that over-play the impact of student politics. But student politics do matter. They provide an opportunity for engagement and for debate, and so at the very least they allow students to develop leadership skills. Maybe student politicians sometimes over-estimate the interest felt by most students in radical politics, but many of them go on to be highly persuasive as politicians in the ‘real’ system.

I’m glad I don’t face the particular brand of political agitation favoured by my student president in 1974 – but I’m glad also that students still come forward to represent their colleagues and hold us to account. Doing so provides a genuine service.

Savagery at a distance

Posted September 20, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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That today’s social media present certain people with a wonderful tool for agitation is well known. Twitter in particular (of which I am a frequent user) sometimes presents us with the online equivalent of road rage: people who are probably quite normal and decent, finding it necessary to compress their outrage into 140 characters, let rip at anyone not admiring their revelation of pure truth. Many, perhaps most, of these perpetrators operate anonymously, giving them the additional cover perfect for the uninhibited online maniac.

Over the last few days I have followed the exchanges between some UK politicians and their would-be online tormentors. To be impartial, I picked a number of politicians who were involved in current disputes, but selected ones from different parties and different arguments. What became clear very quickly was that politicians of all shades appear to attract hugely aggressive tweeters, who use language that would be totally unacceptable if used in face to face debate. Secondly, an extraordinary number of angry tweeters use anti-semitic taunts, even where there does not appear to be any Jewish presence in the conversation. I am not suggesting that a majority does this, but it is clearly present. I should add that such antisemitism is not confined to those attacking ‘Zionism’. In several tweets I found people using words and expressions hostile in racist terms to Jews that I could not possibly repeat. I should emphasise that the use of such unacceptable and vile epithets was not unique to people of a particular political outlook, though in fairness they were targeted disproportionately at Labour MPs and supporters not backing the party’s leadership. Other forms of racism and xenophobia also made an appearance, here more often used by those hostile to migrants or opposing left wing causes.

What struck me also was that some of the aggressive tweeters were, or appeared to be, academics or students; not a majority or significant minority, but nevertheless an identifiable and visible group. Which brings me to the point that started me on this investigation. University life is now experienced by a very large proportion of the population, at one stage or another in their lives. Furthermore, this experience is shot through with social media – Facebook, snapchat, whatsapp, Twitter are all part of the higher education reality. Already a few years ago it was suggested that 75 per cent of students use social media ‘all the time’. The generation of university staff who avoided computers and wrote everything by hand is gradually leaving the academy, and lecturers too are now of the social media generation. Cyber behaviour and cyberpsychology are now important subjects of analysis.

It is important that universities accept a degree of responsibility for guiding people on how to live their virtual online lives, and how their lifestyle can have a larger impact on others, and more generally on society. For me, online tools and facilities are wonderful; but we all need to understand that what happens online is very real, and not just a game. Savagery, even in what we consider a good cause, is a bad action.

The continuing higher education struggle with freedom of speech

Posted September 12, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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In this blog I have previously pointed out how, over recent decades, freedom of speech gradually became a controversial concept. Beginning with the campaign to deny free speech to ‘fascists’ in the 1960s and 1970s, we have more recently reached a point where anything said on a university campus liable to offend anyone of a sensitive nature is seen by some as unacceptable. This has not just affected general conversation and debate, but also how (and indeed whether) some literature should be taught.

Of course this has also produced a backlash, with some commentators claiming that intellectual integrity was at risk across all of higher education and that these trends were indicative of a tendency to mollycoddle students, or perhaps even in some cases to accept student bullying of those they disagree with (staff or other students).

One American university (Washington University in St Louis) has attempted to address this problem with a ‘statement of principle regarding freedom of expression’, affirming the university’s ‘unwavering commitment to freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.’ The statement goes on:

‘To protect the freedom of expression, the university should respect the expression of ideas, even those that are offensive or unpopular, by all members of the university community: students, staff, faculty, administration, and guests…

‘The university should avoid all forms of punitive action in response to the expression of ideas, and it should likewise ensure that no one misuses the authority conferred by the university to restrict such expression. However, we recognize that the free exchange of ideas requires civility and some measure of orderliness to be effective. Accordingly, the university should encourage civil discussion through positive norms and examples, responding to speech that offends groups and members of the university community not by interdiction but by encouraging further discussion and opportunities for education about contentious issues. Additionally, the university is justified in taking reasonable, unbiased actions to facilitate orderly discussion in certain settings, especially non-public ones. Unacceptably injurious or dangerous speech (meaning speech that harasses, defames, threatens, or unjustifiably intrudes on the privacy of specific persons) makes no positive contribution to the free exchange of ideas and can in fact discourage free discussion…

‘It is incumbent on the entire community of Washington University to remember that free and open discourse requires, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “not [only] free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”‘

Universities are not yet the intellectual wasteland that some critics suggest they are, but equally it is clear that the academic imperative to explore, analyse and argue is now somewhat at risk, and universities need to re-establish a sense of their mission. The initiative by Washington University should be applauded, and perhaps copied elsewhere.

Regarding rank, again

Posted September 5, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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While most university heads will at some point declare that they don’t like and are suspicious of global rankings, in reality they do pay significant attention to them. This week sees the publication of the QS World University Rankings. One of the trends apparently captured by QS is an interesting one: almost without exception English universities have slipped in the rankings since 2015. This trend appears to be particularly English, asScottish universities have a more varied performance.

Globally Asian universities are on the rise, European ones (including Ireland) are in apparent decline. United States universities are on the whole doing well.

Some may see the performance of English universities as surprising, given that the fees regime of the UK government has given many of them access to more cash and resources; but this does not seem to translate into higher places in the rankings.

Can we actually conclude anything of use from all this? Do these rankings provide potential users (students, industry partners, others) with any worthwhile information? Is a place in the rankings a valid strategic objective? These questions are hardly addressed now in the major higher education debates: many hate the league tables but feel they have no choice but to play the game. That this game has to be played competitively in order to matter at all is shown by the failure of the EU’s U-Multirank project to make any real impression.

Rankings are in fact now a lucrative business. That does not of itself make them bad; indeed, they may tell us things that could have a useful influence on policy. But my advice to universities is not to build strategy around them. Our mission is to provide high quality teaching, valuable research and effective outreach and knowledge leadership. Our strategy must be to succeed in those objectives and to be excellent in communicating that success.

The academic career?

Posted August 29, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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Every so often someone asks me whether I would recommend academia as a career option, and to be honest I am never quite sure what to say. Of course the academy has been very good to me, but what can someone entering the profession today expect?

The answer to this question, at a technical level, is probably the same as, or at least very similar to, what it always was. Anyone interested can get useful information from a variety of sources, such as this graduate careers website. But whether an academic life is in its essence as attractive and rewarding today as it was when I embarked upon my own career is another matter. I am not here talking about the pressures, the insecurity that some experience, the fading resources, the bureaucratisation. I am talking about the experience that should lie at the heart of higher education: the celebration of scholarship, learning and innovation.

What I have observed in the course of my career is the shift of focus from educational substance to educational process. Evaluations of performance and quality, which are handed out like confetti from almost every street corner, are too often not about what is done, but how it is done. Too often we don’t recognise or reward the major scholarly breakthrough (or perhaps even more importantly, the attempt to achieve one), but rather the willingness to abide by the new rules of academic practice.

Of course performance does matter, in universities as much as anywhere else – but we need to ask more questions about what kind of performance we are trying to encourage, and in particular whether we are looking for and rewarding intellectual creativity; and indeed whether we’ll actually recognise it when we see it.

I still believe that an academic career is one of the most satisfying imaginable. I would still recommend it to anyone with intellectual inclinations. But I hope that we will find new and better ways to encourage, support and reward academics into the next generation; and celebrate them most of all when they expand knowledge, not just when they show dedication to tidy educational processes.

The right participation?

Posted August 22, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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It is that time of year again, when (at least in this part of the world) school examination results are out and universities make their final student selection decisions. It is also the time of year when questions are asked, again, about how many people should ideally participate in higher education.

Roughly a year ago a senior Australian academic, Leo Goedegebuure of the University of Melbourne, suggested:

While some may look at graduate employment rates and contend we have an oversupply of graduates, I fundamentally disagree. Not only is the middle- and long-term outlook for university graduates still pretty good, in a knowledge-based economy there is no limit on the level of educational attainment. The higher and the better educated a country, the more competitive it becomes.

Today a different perspective was offered in the Irish Times by Sean Byrne, lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology:

… Encouraging large numbers of young people to enter third-level courses without assessing their aptitude for the subjects they propose to study or their capacity for self-directed learning will inevitably lead to declining standards and thwarted aspirations.

The debate, if we can call it that, about the optimum participation rate in higher education is never really satisfactory because it doesn’t make explicit the very different considerations included in this question. The issues raised are pedagogical, economic and social; and this is complex because our assessment of pedagogy, for example, has significant social implications. When only a social elite went to university (which was generally the case until the 1980s or so) universities could offer a much less utilitarian curriculum. But when higher education is accessed by a majority of the population, it is more or less inevitable that it will focus much more on economic impact and need. And as we get closer and closer to a society in which almost everyone aspires to a university degree, most of these degrees will need to be closely linked to skills needed in the economy, at various levels.

Higher education participation has grown strongly in all developed countries by design (and rightly so). But what this means in pedagogical, economic and social terms has not become a matter of consensus. And so, every year around this time, someone will ask whether we are really doing the right thing in expanding higher education to such an extent; and will neither offer nor get a satisfactory answer.

Brexit and EU research funding – some necessary certainty?

Posted August 16, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Last week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, issued a statement, which inter alia contained the following assurance:

‘Where UK organisations bid directly to the European Commission on a competitive basis for EU funding projects while we are still a member of the EU, for example universities participating in Horizon 2020, the Treasury will underwrite the payments of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. As a result, British businesses and universities will have certainty over future funding and should continue to bid for competitive EU funds while the UK remains a member of the EU.’

British universities will undoubtedly welcome this statement, which at any rate removes the financial risk they could face by applying for EU research funds at this point. The statement may not however resolve the main problem facing British universities in this context, which is that European universities are now reluctant to include UK institutions in research consortia at all, and will certainly not accept them as leaders of any consortium.

All of this underscores the importance of clarifying government policy in relation to EU research programmes, such as Horizon 2020. If it is thought desirable for Britain to continue in these programmes it would be useful to state this as a policy objective right now, to provide some re-assurance to European partners. There is no conceivable benefit for Britain not to be included.

This should be a government priority right now, not least because it also supports the case for the UK as a location for high value, knowledge-intensive foreign direct investment; a case that the Brexit decision has somewhat undermined as one of the potentially significant unintended consequences. It is time to act.