The nature of argument

Posted July 19, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

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One of the key demands made of a democratic community is that it must be capable of critical argument. Nobody can be sure that an idea, or a policy, or a proposal has merit until it has been properly tested in debate. However, as Monty Python pointed out (or not) some time ago, conducting an argument is not the same thing as hurling abuse. And yet that increasingly is what it has become, at any rate in certain political quarters.

Right now I am visiting the United States. It is an interesting time to do so, as we are just into the Republican Party Convention. Perhaps unwisely, I spent a little time this evening watching the proceedings on television, and the sum of the speeches, interjections, interviews and commentary was simple enough: Hillary Clinton is a crooked liar. That’s all you need to know, and let’s not assess the evidence too much, it confuses the message.

But before those who dislike the Republican Party and maybe feel superior to the United States get into their stride, the last few days have seen bucketloads of abuse thrown around in Britain also, a good bit of it at the Conservative Party; in fact, there is a popular hashtag on Twitter that reads #Toryscum. I am not an apologist for the Tory Party, but I cannot help noticing that all too often its detractors detract less with reason and more with vilification.

Political debate is becoming increasingly coarse, and all too often those conducting it seem to assume that they will fare best if they succeed in attacking the bona fides of their opponents rather than the merits of their opponents’ arguments. The result of this is popular cynicism, which in turn corrodes democratic processes.argument

Of course there are some politicians who deserve censorious denunciation. But not all of them do, and not even all in a particular party with which you or I might disagree. Real argument is more intellectually laudable than personal abuse. In fact, abusive anger is never attractive and rarely appropriate, in whatever setting we might be tempted to apply it.

I’ll probably go back to watching the GOP tomorrow. I have asked my family to prod me if I mutter anything abusive.

Irish higher education: the funding dilemma

Posted July 11, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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As Irish readers will know, yesterday saw the publication of the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education (chaired by Peter Cassells), Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education. Its recommendations had been well trailed in advance of publication, so while they merit discussion of course they are hardly new. Indeed they are not new in another sense: most of what is analysed in the report, and indeed of what is recommended, had been analysed and recommended 12 years earlier in the OECD report, Review of Higher Education in Ireland. Very similar conclusions were reached back then, particularly in chapter 10 of that report.

The problem requiring a solution is not hard to state, and has been a matter of pretty solid consensus for well over a decade: Irish universities and colleges are seriously under-funded. The consequences include an increasingly unacceptable student-staff ratio, degraded facilities, high levels of student attrition, an erosion of international competitiveness. The solution is very easy to state also: more money. The conundrum for politicians is who should pay for this, or where this money is going to come from.

The Cassells expert group has identified three possibilities: (i) let the state pay for everything, but more generously than at present; (ii) maintain the current system of a €3,000 student contribution with additional state funding to make up the required amount; or (iii) an income-contingent loan system, under which higher education is free at the point of entry but where students contribute through re-payment of a loan once their income has reached a certain threshold after graduation. The report assesses these options, sets out the advantages and disadvantages of each, and in effect settles for option (iii), though not explicitly.

In the end this will not turn out to be a matter of choosing the best option, but of securing a policy that will not be damaging to anyone politically. The fate of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the UK – who promised not to allow any increase in tuition fees but who were then in the government that did just that and ended up losing seats at the subsequent election – will be on everyone’s mind. If this is a problem that can be dodged it probably will be. After all, the OECD report has gathered dust for 12 years.

I confess I am hugely sceptical about an income-contingent loan scheme. Australia is held up as an example to follow, but the critical thing to note about the Australian model is that it has led to massive unpaid debts, estimated to lie at around or above a staggering AUS$40 billion. As the scheme also involves subsidised interest rates for the loans, it has been estimated that the cost to the taxpayer could be about the same as state funding for the system, but less predictable in its impact.

If it is our intention, as it should be, to ensure that access to higher education is unimpeded for those with the necessary talent, whatever their socio-economic background, then there are really only two options. One is full state funding: but this is meaningful only if that funding is generous enough to secure excellence, quality and international competitiveness. This in turn is unachievable unless taxes are raised to secure the necessary funds, and the revenues are hypothecated – i.e. ring fenced for expenditure on higher education only (which is not possible under current budget systems).

The other option is to have tuition fees for those who (subject to means testing) can afford it, free tuition for those who cannot, and perhaps loans-assisted fee payments for middle income groups.

There is no other realistic option that will actually work in practice and in the long run. There isn’t an easy silver bullet that requires no difficult decision by politicians. And because this is so, this report too may start gathering dust. I would love to think that I am wrong however, and that at least some steps will be taken to ensure that the erosion of excellence in Irish higher education is halted.

Getting to the point

Posted July 5, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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In this blog I have asked every so often whether slide presentations are good or bad in higher education. When I last wrote on the subject I think I concluded that they had become a distraction from teaching rather than being a pedagogical tool to support it, in part because they were often not well thought out. It’s a topic that regularly crops up in higher education journals and websites, most recently here.

I was reminded of the questionable merits of such presentations at an event I attended recently, where one of the speakers had seriously over-achieved in the design and formatting of his slide show, but at the expense of intelligent comment. One of his slides just had the one word ‘Yes’,  but with the word set in the middle of an explosion of clip art and psychedelic colours.

Having given up on Powerpoint and similar tools a while ago, I returned to it recently and tried something different – a parade of slides automatically progressing in the background while I spoke, with each slide containing a famous work of art; with no explanation, so inviting my listeners either to work out what the connection was, or to get relief from my talk with something aesthetically pleasing. I was quite happy with the engagement it appeared to prompt – though I consider it only appropriate as a one-off, or it would become a cliché.

I suppose that what I now think is that Powerpoint, like any tool, has its uses as long as one knows what these might be. I’ll try to keep an open mind.

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

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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.


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