Coming to terms with ‘Brexit’

Posted June 28, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics

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Maybe most people didn’t see that one coming, but I had harboured a suspicion for several weeks that the UK electorate as a whole would vote to leave the European Union; and in that belief had urged people supporting that position to be clearer about what it would mean in practice, and what the consequences would be.

And now, several days have passed since the vote and nobody knows anything at all. We don’t know, even in outline, what kind of relationship with the EU those who campaigned for Brexit actually want, or what the UK’s negotiating position will be. We don’t know whether the UK can or will be in the EU’s single market. We don’t know what the actions of investors will be, or indeed of domestic consumers. We don’t know what will happen to the UK’s currency, the Pound.

I imagine that many of those who voted to leave will have done so in the expectation that immigration (from the EU and indeed everywhere else) will fall dramatically; and yet we must suspect it almost certainly will not, whatever new regulatory framework emerges.

And of course we don’t know what will happen to Scotland – will it now leave the UK, or will there be some accommodation that allows Scotland (and maybe London?) to keep special ties to the European Union within a United Kingdom that has left?

In the university sector, a large number of questions now arise, some of them of fundamental importance. Will they still be able to recruit faculty and students internationally, in the EU and beyond, as before? Will they still have access to the same research funding? What about Erasmus and other student exchanges? How will our friends and partners across the world now view us?

I began my academic career in 1980. Over the years since then I cannot recall any period of such uncertainty as the one we face now; made more difficult by the fact that almost none of our questions will be conclusively answered any time soon. We will be living in very interesting times.

A quest for ignorance?

Posted June 20, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics, society

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One of the more curious things to come out of the current British EU referendum campaign is the debate about ‘experts’. For some time the Remain side have been producing economists, political scientists, financiers and others to explain why a UK exit form the EU – so-called ‘Brexit’ – would be a bad idea. The Leave side have been much less successful in getting well known figures to support their case. And so, in the course of an interview on Sky television, leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove offered this: ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’.

However, this is not a completely new suggestion. Some years ago in 1981 I attended a conference as a young lecturer. One of the invited speakers was one of Mr Gove’s predecessors as Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. In the course of a questions and answers session at the end of his talk, he was invited to consider the line-up of prominent economists then publicly criticising the Conservative government’s economic policies. ‘Ah, the experts,’ he mused. ‘”Expertise” is just a fancy word for “bias”. We don’t need all these self-proclaimed experts.’ And before him still, then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan complained that ‘we have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts’.

In the current EU campaign, the dislike of expertise and a lack of trust in experts has become one of the characteristics of the Leave population. According to a recent poll, Leave voters actually don’t trust many people generally, but particularly not economists, academics, people from the Bank of England, and think tanks. Instead they prefer to rely on the common sense of ‘ordinary people’.

It is tempting for an academic to be dismissive of all this. However, that would be wrong. Far from being dismissive, we should be concerned that the pursuit of knowledge is so little valued by so many people. Is it because Lord Hailsham was actually right – that becoming highly knowledgeable in a particular field desensitises us to the validity of challenge from those not in the inner circle of expertise? Do we need to look more closely – as a research project is doing – at the idea of intellectual humility?

On the other hand, we should be vigorous in defence of knowledge and discovery, without which we can achieve neither progress nor a civilised society. Those of us who make some claim to expertise should do so without arrogance, but also with confidence in the importance of scholarship and the contribution it makes. Common sense is a traditional British virtue; but it is not a substitute for expertise.

Brexit and the academic imperative

Posted June 14, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, university

Tags: , ,

As I may have mentioned before, I do not subscribe to the view that universities as institutions should campaign for or against the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. That is ultimately a matter for the voters, and of course they will make their choice with reference to many different things, not many of which will have much to do with higher education. It is of course perfectly proper for universities to point out how they may benefit from European Union membership, but they should then leave it to the electorate to judge how important that is in the overall scheme of things.

But there is an element of this referendum campaign which is a proper subject-matter for the academy: the truth or otherwise of the arguments being presented by those advocating a leave or remain vote. And the picture is not a pretty one. As the campaign has progressed the arguments have become increasingly bizarre, with a Third World War vying for attention with the prospect of every single Turk turning up at Heathrow or Dover. The printed news media, or parts of it, has done what it seems to do best, which is to take this kind of stuff and put it in large print on the front pages.

The main result of this is that the electorate appears to be heading for the polling booths in a state of extraordinary ignorance. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI has revealed that on most of the issues that the protagonists have placed at the top of the agenda (immigration, trade etc) the public believe ‘facts’ that are simply wrong. Correcting all this misinformation (or indeed disinformation) is an important task that academics should tackle. Whatever way we would like this vote to go, it should be undertaken with more than the usual understanding of the key issues. There is not much time left.

Credit where it’s due?

Posted June 7, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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A couple of years ago MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were all the rage – as we discussed a couple of times in this blog. I was, as readers may recall, a little sceptical; and then the noise around MOOCs abated, and we went on to other things. One of the key problems with MOOCs, as I would have argued then, was that they didn’t provide the student with what most students principally want: a formally recognised qualification, a degree.

Now we may be seeing this addressed: the Open University and the University of Leeds are reported to be about to recognise time spent on MOOCs as part of the time spent working towards a degree. I don’t know anything else – how much credit can be accumulated in this way, whether the courses will attract fees, and so forth.

I still take the view that MOOCs run as genuinely open and free courses cannot become a major part of higher education, as there is no conceivable business model that would work here. But there may be ways in which online courses can be developed to play a  more realistic (and effective) role in the development of a new model of higher education. It will be worth watching this experiment.

Butterfly and bee. And poet.

Posted June 5, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: society, sport

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I think that everything that can be said on the death of Muhammad Ali has been said by now. So I’ll just let him talk:

Muhammad Ali was, perhaps more than a boxer, a poet; a poet of words, rhyme and movement. That is worth celebrating, and his passing is worth mourning.

Cheap at any price?

Posted May 31, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

In the United Kingdom at least there now appears to be a belief that assuring quality means measuring things. This, as we have noted previously in this blog, lies at the heart of the Research Excellence Framework (REF – previously the Research Assessment Exercise), and it appears increasingly likely it will also be at the heart of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In fact these exercises tend to consider an intriguing jumble of inputs and outputs and put a relative value on them. The result is seen as a kind of gold standard. The REF in particular is viewed not just as a table of research excellence, but also as some sort of indicator of wider institutional quality. Few seem to think, as perhaps they should, that such massive exercises will often prompt worthy mediocrity much more than intellectual creativity. And nobody much seems to want to ask why virtually no other country thinks this sort of thing is a good idea.

But maybe our fatalism that this is inevitably our destiny might be shaken a little if we thought more about the cost of it all. The journal Times Higher Education has recently referred to studies suggesting that the cost of the most recent REF may have been anything from £214 million to £1 billion. To put that into some sort of perspective, even the smaller of these figures is nearly as much as the entire annual funding of all of Ireland’s universities (including tuition fees paid by the state). For this kind of cost to be worthwhile it would have to guarantee an enormous explosion of research excellence producing massive educational and financial benefits to the institutions and to society. There is really no evidence to suggest this is the case. The history of the RAE and REF does show they prompted a much greater volume of publication, but there is no evidence at all that this generated a greater amount of innovative discovery or scholarly insight. In passing it can be said with some assurance that research funding does have such an impact, and competing for it produces benefits – but no such claims can be proven to be true for REF. And now we are apparently about to load another huge cost on to the system in TEF, almost certainly with similarly uncertain benefits.

We do need to secure high quality teaching and research. But we also need to display much more sophistication as to how this can be assured.

The rise of the illiberal university?

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

Tags: , ,

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.


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