An educated vote?

Posted August 14, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics, society

Tags: , ,

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

Erosion of support for higher education?

Posted August 7, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics, society

One of the points of wide consensus in the world over recent decades was the desirability of extending higher education to a much greater number of people, both so as to create a more equitable society and to ensure that high level skills were available to the economy.

Recent debates may be starting to call that consensus into question. In the United States universities have increasingly come to be seen as being part of the liberal political cluster, and their value has accordingly been called into question by some on the conservative wing of politics. In the UK and elsewhere criticism of pay and conditions for senior managers has become widespread, giving universities a bad press.

Opposition to universities is not on the whole based on arguments against higher education, but on dissatisfaction with this or that attribute or practice of the sector. This has the capacity to put at risk support for educational excellence at tertiary level, which would have more serious implications. Universities should therefore consider it a priority to look at how they are perceived by society (or sections of it), and how they can steer the system back to where a broad consensus supporting higher education can be found. This is vital for any number of economic and social reasons.

Foolish, in anyone’s language

Posted August 1, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: education


The benefit and the curse of living in an English-speaking country is that so many people around the world speak some English – we have come to expect that of them. And so it doesn’t seem so surprising that, in this case in Scotland, over ten years there has been a drop of 59 per cent in the number of school pupils taking foreign languages, with only Spanish seeing an increase. The same trend has been observed for a while in England, and all this has had a predictable impact on universities.

There are countless reasons why this is not good news. We may be able to order our pizzas in Tuscany without learning Italian and order our Volkswagens in English, but success in global interactions is critically enhanced by understanding other peoples’ cultures, particularly including their languages. A Chinese colleague once told me that winning in business dealings with British and American businesspeople is made so much easier by their lack of linguistic and cultural awareness.

This trend can be stopped, but such action has to be led visibly and audibly by government and the business community. Right now that is not happening. It needs to happen.

Brexit: come on, folks – get serious!

Posted July 30, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society


To really passionate supporters of Brexit – the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union – doubts about the wisdom of this decision are incomprehensible. This is clearly the right decision, and it does not of any necessity involve painful or difficult consequences. It could and should all be so easy. So we are told that Brexit is easy and that ‘tariff-free access’ to the EU’s single market isn’t hard to get if only we negotiate cleverly.

In fact we are assured by many of the great and the good (let us say, the elite establishment) that after Brexit we are all going to enjoy the ‘sunlit uplands’, an expression borrowed from Winston Churchill. So why can’t everyone (including the media) be a bit more patriotic and get with the programme? Why are we still hearing dissent and arguments and objections and reasons and pessimistic predictions? What’s wrong with these people, and why are they spoiling it for the rest of us? Daily Telegraph columnist and former editor, Charles Moore, thinks that everyone should stop complaining and follow the lead of the Brexiters: come on in, the water is fine.

Brexit was the decision of the UK electorate. I may (and do) deplore that, but as this was the decision it is of course perfectly reasonable to argue for its implementation. What is not reasonable, however, is to pretend that it doesn’t involve any problems or complications or compromises, and it is this tendency to paint a glib and wholly unrealistic picture of where we are going that keeps the objections alive. It’s not that Brexit cannot be a success (although I doubt it can be negotiated in a year or so), it’s that it will be an unimaginably complicated process that requires a high level of preparedness, a realistic outlook and impressive negotiating skills to achieve a good outcome. For a period of nearly 45 years every aspect of British public and commercial life has been integrated with the EU, and separating will be fiendishly difficult, as most of those with detailed knowledge and experience say repeatedly.

Actually Brexit supporters know all this, indeed I suspect are mesmerised by it. They are in charge of a grand project that was offered to the people without any proper analysis of what it entailed, and with facile and unrealistic promises of easy outcomes. Now it has to be delivered; and while it can be delivered, it won’t in the end be the ‘sunlit uplands’ model promised earlier. It may indeed work, but not for a while, and not without pain. So to cover their anxiety, the Brexit enthusiasts find it easier to attack remainers, or as the dafter ones amongst them insist on calling them, ‘remoaners’. The irony is that the term ‘remoaner’ is much less effective as an insult directed at remainers than as an example of a loud ‘moan’ by Brexiters – a petulant stamping of the foot.

If the move towards Brexit is to succeed, it needs to be led and conducted with a degree of seriousness and skill. My advice is to stop talking nonsense about how nice and easy it all is; in other words, stop insulting everyone’s intelligence. Stop moaning about remoaners, and start getting to grips with the issues. We still may not all like it then, but there would be a greater chance of grudging respect.

Universities and political elites

Posted July 24, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, university

Tags: ,

Politicians, as we discover from time to time, on the whole like social cachet. For men and women ‘of the people’, they often have backgrounds and enjoy privileges that the ‘people’ don’t always get close to. One way of assessing this has often been by looking at what (if any, of course) universities they attended. While the proportion of MPs in the UK House of Commons who are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge has been declining, it is still an extraordinary 23 per cent.

Interestingly, no Scottish constituency returned an Oxbridge-educated MP. A significant proportion graduated from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but it is not a outrageously disproportionate number.

For someone looking to pursue a career in politics in the UK, it still seems to make sense to apply to a handful of universities generally (button usefully) described as ‘elite’ universities, That should not be the case, and candidate selection needs to be more focused on this issue (amongst others)

I might add in parentheses that one university that seems to be getting closer to the people politically is Trinity College Dublin, who have recorded their first graduate as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar. I might suggest that a Dublin City University graduate should be next, and maybe that the next First Minister of Scotland should have studied in Robert Gordon University; but those might not be objective thoughts.

Tuition fees; or not; or what?

Posted July 17, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

Perhaps unexpectedly, tuition fees moved centre stage in the recent UK general election. It is assumed by several commentators that the promise by the Labour Party to scrap tuition fees in England (Scotland has none) and restore free higher education played a major part in bringing out the youth vote and upsetting Conservative plans in the election.

Since then, the Guardian newspaper has carried opinion pieces by Christopher Newfield, Professor of English and American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and by David Green, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester, calling for a policy change. Professor Green suggests a return to a version of the pre-2012 framework in which the cost of university studies was shared by the state and the student (he would now add ‘companies’ to the mix), while Professor Newfield wants tuition fees scrapped completely.

Each of these pieces contain some strange or unrealistic elements. Professor Newfield rather astonishingly suggests that the cost to the taxpayer of abolishing tuition fees would at worst be £48 per taxpayer per year. Even taking the most favourable options for this, such a sum would have to be paid by over 166 million taxpayers every year, which is several times the number of taxpayers actually available; and that doesn’t address the accumulated enormous student debt. Professor Green wants ‘companies’ to shoulder some of the funding burden; but apart from this being a somewhat vague class of funders, how would this be administered or enforced?

What both comment pieces have in common, however, is a search for a reason why one group rather than another should shoulder the burden. Professor Newfield, like many others, believes that education as a public good needs to be funded by the taxpayer. Professor Green sees more of a mix of stakeholders who should contribute, including (in some measure) the students.

I confess I find the public good/private good debate on tuition somewhat pointless, because it obscures the real social and economic issues and ignores to a large extent the needs of the universities themselves for adequate resourcing. The harsh reality is that free tuition requires the taxpayer to make a major investment in supporting wealthier sections of the population, often at the expense of poorer ones; it is ultimately a redistribution of money from the poor to the rich. The standard response to this is that this can be balanced by securing more revenue from wealthy taxpayers. The problem is that this isn’t ever done, and in any case tax revenues are never hypothecated, so that even if it were done there is no guarantee that the funds secured would be spent on universities (they almost certainly wouldn’t be during times of scarce public money). So free tuition tends to go hand in hand with inadequate university participation by less well-off sections of the population and the decline of the university sector during difficult economic cycles (something that pretty well everyone now accepts has happened in Ireland).

On the other hand, the payment of tuition fees funded by student loans, based on some sort of understanding of most university education as a private good, creates horrendous debts that will, in very many cases, never be repaid and thus create a huge financial liability that will have to be met at some point, but no one knows by whom. This system also punishes the disadvantaged, who don’t enjoy special financial support and who may find that their debts have left them facing negative educational equity, with the added salary value of their qualifications not matching the accumulated amount of their debts.

Three points seem to me to be totally obvious. (1) The state does have a direct interest in advancing higher education that is both inclusive and properly resourced; it absolutely must make a major contribution. (2) The state must provide baseline funding for all institutions and all subject areas, but must also target a significant part of its funding where it is most needed: participation by groups experiencing socio-economic disadvantage (and not just by removing the burden of fees but also by providing adequate financial support). (3) Students from all groups other than socio-economically disadvantaged ones must make a contribution to the cost of their studies.

I genuinely respect those in politics and other walks of life who argue as a matter of principle that university tuition should be free. But in practice this doesn’t have the intended effect. On the other hand, a student loan-funded system creates a huge problem further down the line and generates a highly arguable vision of what higher education is all about.

This is not an easy policy to get right, because emotions run high and political competition is involved. I hope nevertheless that I shall live to see a much better and fairer and more effective system of higher education funding than I have experienced to date.

All dressed up?

Posted July 10, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: university


For the remainder of this week, I shall be enjoying my university’s graduation ceremonies. I share with my Chancellor, Sir Ian Wood, the task of presiding over these events (we divide them up between us), and I speak at all of them. Over the years between Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University, I have presided at maybe 170 ceremonies and shaken some 31,000 hands in the process; often experiencing the sensation and occasionally the pain of the graduands’ hand jewellery, and always marvelling at the improbable footwear in which amazingly many of them manage to negotiate their way across the stage. But no matter how often I have done it, the spirit of these occasions always carries me along.

Ten years ago in DCU one of our academic colleagues made a formal request to discontinue, for staff at least, the requirement to wear academic robes for graduations. He argued that this was an outdated practice not in tune with the times or indeed with the ethos of the university. We had a lively debate on the DCU Academic Council (the final decision-making body for academic matters) and the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. While the proposal didn’t cover students, I canvassed their opinions anyway and, again, found the mood totally hostile to any relaxing of the rules. What I did change in DCU at the time was the somewhat strange and certainly sexist requirement (generally applied in Irish universities) for women only to wear mortar boards at graduations: in DCU it became optional for both men and women.

So, even in universities such as RGU and DCU, which build their strategies on a non-traditional outlook, formal dress at graduations is still seen as not just appropriate but necessary. This in turn reminds us that rites of passage are rites, or rituals, which need to generate a sense of occasion and emotion. Higher education is changing rapidly; the ceremonies that mark each student’s success probably not.