Not one of us?

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

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For those feeling nostalgic about the McCarthy witch hunts some decades ago in the United States, here’s something to bring it all up to date: a conservative pressure group, Turning Point USA, has created what they are calling a ‘Professor Watchlist’. This is needed, they say, because ‘students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls’. A radical agenda for their purposes does not include, as you will immediately have guessed, a radical conservative agenda.

So far the list contains some 130 names. The reasons for inclusion are worth noting. One is there, for example, because she told students that a person’s race may determine their professional success. Another is there because he criticised the idea that civilians should be allowed to carry guns openly. And so on.

The website lets readers submit suggestions for inclusion in the list. Many have done so, not always taking the list seriously. But in the end we must all be concerned about attempts to put public pressure on academics, or their institutions, to limit the expression of views. Joe McCarthy was ultimately defeated, but he needed to be. Let’s not start all that again now.

Fidelity

Posted November 28, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics

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Occasionally there is an event where the responses to the event are almost more interesting than the event itself. That was the case this weekend with the death of Fidel Castro. He had been, as some of the obituaries noted, the longest serving head of state in the world; though it would probably be fair to add that this is not quite so much of an achievement if your country has no elections.

I have my own history with Fidel. As a teenager I had the iconic poster of Che Guevara, the famous Guerrillero Heroico, in my bedroom, and not far from it was a photograph of Che and Fidel. I also had Mao’s little red book. Today I wouldn’t regard any of these as heroes, though equally I wouldn’t consider Fidel one of the world’s worst tyrants.

But it seems hard for many people to offer a balanced critique right now. Fidel Castro was a dictator, and he was guilty of significant human rights abuses. But he also led a country that managed, given its resources, to establish highly effective systems of education and healthcare. He was not the devil, but neither was he a hero. His death however seems to have reignited, at least for a moment, the spirit of the Cold War, with numerous politicians and celebrities suggesting he was one or the other of these. Irish President Michael D. Higgins was quick off the blocks, suggesting this, at the very best somewhat surprising, assessment:

‘Fidel Castro will be remembered as a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.’

That Castro was much exercised by freedom for his people is doubtful. But the Irish President was not alone: similar epitaphs were suggested by other politicians from the international socialist community, including British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Others were less effusive. The US President-elect suggested that Castro was no more than a ‘brutal dictator’.

The truth of course lies somewhere in between. Fidel Castro toppled a corrupt and repressive régime when he took power in 1959. He subsequently had to grapple with the completely unreasonable campaign by the United States to remove him and isolate his country. He was nevertheless able to develop a society of well-educated people with a very effective system of health and social care. On the other hand his own government was repressive and  undermined basic freedoms; his treatment of the gay community is a particular example. And he also practised the oppression of political dissenters and controlled the media.

As for me, on Saturday I neither rejoiced nor mourned. But I did note Fidel Castro’s passing, and maybe mourned the gradual disappearance of my youth over the horizon.

The big, really big, higher education fallacy

Posted November 21, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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When it comes to Irish higher education, every so often someone steps forward – either with relevant credentials or quite often without – and suggests that the only way forward is to merge the country’s universities. In 2010 it was former European Commissioner and Chairman of Goldman Sachs, Peter Sutherland. He suggested that Ireland could not have seven world class universities, and the only way to get any at all would be to merge Trinity College Dublin with University College Dublin.

This year the suggestion has come from one Philip O’Kane, a retired University College Cork Professor of Civil Engineering. Writing in the Irish Times, he has come up with an argument that is novel to me. Germany, he says, has created a new set of elite universities, and of these there is one for every 7.5 million people. Therefore Ireland really can’t have any elite institutions, given the population, but if it is to have any chance at all it must merge the whole lot and create just one. A single ‘super-university’.

The idea that a really really big university would naturally be much more competitive clearly seduces intelligent people from time to time, but it is complete nonsense. None of the world’s top 20 universities (as recognised by the Times Higher Education rankings) is particularly big. One – the number 2, which in the previous couple of years was number 1 – is in fact particularly small, having only 2,255 students overall. Conversely not a single one of the 100 biggest universities in the world is in the global 100 best universities. And if you think Germany has found the way forward, its ‘elite’ universities don’t score terribly well in the rankings; it has none in the top 20.

The driver of global recognition is never size, but excellence. Even when it come to resourcing and funding, the critical issue is not how many dollars we get overall, but how many per student or faculty. This recurring invitation to set about merging everything is not just a distraction, it is quite simply wrong. If someone were tempted to make it happen, the result would be disastrous, not least because – and here’s another point to consider – multi-campus institutions rarely do well.

So, every time this call is made, I just sit there hoping absolutely no one is listening.

History man?

Posted November 15, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: education, higher education, history, politics

Tags: ,

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in the United States has produced much acrimonious debate and lots of anxiety in the education community, in America and elsewhere. There are clearly many questions that this turn of events should prompt us to address about social, political and educational values, at least over time; but one incident in the past couple of days invites comment now. A history teacher in a Californian high school has been placed on leave for comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. According to reports, Frank Navarro argued that ‘Hitler’s persecution of Jews and rise to power has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims in his own bid for power.’

I won’t offer a view on the merits of Mr Navarro’s analysis; indeed some might suggest that he has violated ‘Godwin’s Law‘, under which anyone who in an argument invokes an analogy with Hitler loses that argument. It is certainly doubtful whether Mr Trump, whatever one might say about him (and lots is being said) is contemplating genocide or the invasion of Canada.

But that is not the question here. Rather, the question is how far an educator should be allowed to go in developing an argument in front of students, even where that argument might not be thought by others to carry merit, or even where it might be thought to state a partisan political position. To assess that further, one could ask whether Mr Navarro would have been suspended if, instead of comparing Donald Trump with Hitler, he had claimed interesting parallels with Winston Churchill. The latter analogy would also have been partisan, though this time in the other direction. And if we transferred the scene from an American High School classroom to a university, would the same or different considerations apply?

The proper test is whether an argument presented in a classroom is framed as an invitation to students to question assumptions and received wisdoms, or whether it amounts to indoctrination. I cannot tell, from the little evidence I have, whether Frank Navarro crossed a line he shouldn’t have; but I am instinctively uneasy about this form of sanction, however questionable his thesis may have been. As his students see him punished for saying what he did, they may well draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of a mature free society.

The global world of higher education. Or maybe not.

Posted November 8, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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We are now nearly five months on from the ‘Brexit’ referendum in which a narrow majority of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. It is generally assumed by commentators (although of course there is no actual statistical evidence) that the key driver of this decision was opposition to immigration. The impact of the undoubtedly high net migration into the United Kingdom was certainly a major topic of debate during the campaign, and indeed became the main argument used by at least some of the ‘Leave’ campaigners.

While it is impossible to tell what motivated individual voters, it is not unreasonable to argue that immigration was an issue. In that sense, the post-referendum discussions about how to limit immigration may not be a surprise, but it has had a particular impact on universities. Higher education operates in a global setting. Movement between countries by staff and students is a key feature, and contributes significantly to academic excellence and, as regards student migration, to exports.

Over the years governments have demonstrated that, whatever their policies or their ideology, none of them were able to reduce net immigration, even (in the case of non-EU migration) where they had all the apparently necessary tools at their disposal. However, there is one group of migrants – students – whose movements are more easily controlled, simply because universities can be forced to act as policing agencies and can be penalised if they are ineffective. Perhaps recognising this fact, the government (or more specifically, the Home Secretary Ms Amber Rudd MP) has focused quite specifically on the control and reduction of overseas student numbers, and at the Conservative Party conference in September she announced a further ‘crackdown’ on student migration. Attempts to persuade the government to exclude students from immigration statistics – which would be totally reasonable given the temporary nature of their presence – have been rejected.

The government’s policy in this area simply does not make sense. Student migration is, by any standards, not an economic, social or cultural problem for the UK. It is however a significant element of a world class university system, and if the view gains ground that Britain does not particularly want international students, the whole university system will suffer. In the meantime the government is also coming under international political pressure in this matter, including (as we have seen over the past day or two) from countries like India with whom the UK is desperate to do business post-Brexit.

One general concern with the Brexit landscape is that policy is not being guided by reason. The government is being buffeted about by the sometimes rather shrill demands of pro-Brexit newspapers and commentators, and responds with an apparent inclination to appease these voices. The long-term damage to Britain from all this may turn out to be significant. It is time to base policy on a much more calm assessment of the evidence.

People talk about interdisciplinarity, but will we ever really do it?

Posted October 31, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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During my first year as a lecturer in 1981 I attended a workshop on ‘the protection of academic disciplines’. The event had been organised by a group of academics from various subject areas who wanted to draw attention to the risk, as they saw it, of scholarship and knowledge being put at risk by an obsession with interdisciplinary studies and research. In the opinion of these colleagues such work would compromise academic excellence because those doing it would have to know something about too much, and so their knowledge of anything would not be very deep; ‘skimming across the surface of knowledge’ was how one participant described it.

At the time this was of more than passing interest to me. I had been an undergraduate law student, and had then written a PhD thesis that covered law, sociology and economics; and subsequently I began my academic career as a lecturer in industrial relations in a business school. In fact that business school had amongst its senior staff a philosopher, another lawyer, and a mathematician. We used to meet most mornings in the School Head’s office and discussed books we were reading. But outside of this congenial circle it was often a different story. I remember attending a law conference during that period and finding myself under sustained attack by a very senior academic from another well known university for ‘pursuing a cheap and unscholarly route’ in my publications. He presumably felt I was skimming.

In any case interdisciplinarity was, for me at least, soon put back in its box. I changed jobs and joined a law school, and at about the same the powers that be in the UK introduced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE – now the Research Excellence Framework, or REF). The law school did have some interesting interdisciplinary work, but the RAE didn’t recognise such stuff (review panels were always overwhelmingly or even exclusively made up of single-discipline people), and with us as elsewhere the focus moved back into the disciplines.

But more generally the search for insights going beyond just one intellectual frame of reference never stopped, and advances in various areas made excursions across disciplinary boundaries more and more desirable. In the United States interdisciplinarity was promoted increasingly by funding agencies. The National Science Foundation has for some time recognised ‘the value of interdisciplinary research in pushing fields forward and accelerating scientific discovery.’ But in the UK it has been argued that any early career academic going down that route may find it difficult to gain recognition and promotion.

Nobody says any more what I was told in the 1980s – that interdisciplinary work is intellectually deficient. But actually doing it can still be just as frustrating and can still fail to find proper recognition. We are too often emotionally committed to particular boundaries between areas of knowledge which were often, in their origins, entirely arbitrary. It is time to think again.

Thumbs down for educational technology?

Posted October 24, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, technology

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It is exactly 30 years ago today that I took delivery of my first personal computer. It was an Apple Macintosh, and it had an incredible 1 megabyte of RAM and, er, no hard drive. A week later I produced my first computer-generated presentation for my industrial relations class, which however I had to print out on acetates in order to display the slides on an overhead projector. For me, technology-enabled education had begun. Colleagues looked on in admiration.

We have of course come a long way since then. Nowadays every higher education curriculum in any institution will feature a truckload of technology-enabled learning, the assessment of which is then crunched on various data programs to produce good-looking spreadsheets to please any board of examiners.

But is it adding value to the learning experience? No, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Education. Or rather, not necessarily. Academics seem to value the opportunities for innovation provided by technology, but are sceptical as to whether the accumulated data gathered by IT systems is being used appropriately; or whether the quality of the learning experience is being much enhanced. They suspect that technology is deployed more to impress those evaluating institutions than to help students.

We must not be Luddites: educational technology is here to stay. But it must be used properly, and for the right reasons. This must mean in particular that the design of technology must be driven by academics rather than administrators, and must target the student experience and pedagogy rather than efficiency of processes. And there must be a clear understanding of how standards are affected – for good or bad – by online methods.