Archive for May 2010

Corporate assaults on university values?

May 31, 2010

Another day, another report on how universities are all going to the dogs. This one is in the form of a book due to be published in September, but which has been previewed on the rather interesting website Truthout (dedicated to ‘equality, democracy, human rights, accountability and social justice’). The book in question is by an American professor, Ellen Schrecker, and its title is The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom and the End of the American University.

From the summary and commentary on Truthout, much of the book goes down a fairly well travelled path, arguing that academic freedom is under constant assault as politicians and (usually) right wing pressure groups train their guns at any academic with a radical, anti-establishment message. For once the author does not appear to claim that this is a new phenomenon or one that has been growing recently, as she points to various assaults on academics going back at the least to the McCarthy era. In fact, the only example taken from a more recent case (at least that we learn about from this review) is that of Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado, who was dismissed in 2007 for serious research misconduct. As he was the author of some very controversial material, it has been argued that his dismissal was politically motivated; but then again, the complaints that led to the investigation about his research methods came from other academics who claimed he had misused their research. Still, I have an open mind on this case, and of course it may be that he was targeted for unacceptable reasons. But that’s just one case, and the other examples all go back at least a few decades.

And then Professor Schrecker, we learn, adds a new and recent element to this horror story: the role of companies in undermining higher education integrity. This, we are told, has arisen because universities need to get more money to replace serious cuts in public funding, and so they turn to the private sector. And when they do, companies that universities seek to partner start making demands about the topics to be researched and try to ‘stifle findings’ that they find commercially inconvenient.

Of course I haven’t read the book and must rely on this particular assessment of it, but if the summary is at all accurate then this is a weak and somewhat misleading argument. First of all, no sane university looks to research deals with companies to compensate for public funding cuts. Such deals can sustain research teams and overheads, but they certainly don’t produce profits that could off-set reduced budgets; indeed sometimes they run at a loss. Secondly, I have absolutely never come across an academic who is unwillingly doing research under a research contract entered into with a business partner. I’m not saying it never happens, but if it does it is most rare; generally such contracts are entered into at the initiative of the faculty who undertake the work. Therefore, while such contracts may or may not be good, and may or may not have sufficient intellectual integrity, this have little to do with academic freedom, one way or another. Equally I have never come across an industry contract under which research findings have been ‘stifled’. My own university would absolutely never agree to enter into any contract where this might happen and would resolutely reject any such attempt were it made. And I don’t think we are unusual.

I shall order the book when it is published, but for now I am not expecting to be impressed when I get to read it. Of course we must ensure that we protect intellectual integrity and autonomy, but we’ll do that more effectively and certainly more credibly if we don’t exaggerate the dangers facing us. I acknowledge that there are influential people, media outlets and pressure groups that target individual academics they don’t like, but mostly universities will stand firm in the face of such attacks. I also accept that business links need to be built up carefully and need to be monitored. But to suggest that higher education is riddled with attacks on academic freedom and that this is somehow connected with what is described as ‘corporatisation’ seems to me to be sloppy analysis and not helpful.

Of course it is perfectly acceptable to argue that universities should not collaborate with corporate partners; that’s not an argument I would put forward myself, but it is a perfectly respectable position to hold. But if it is to be made it should be based on a debate around academic standards and ethics; connecting it with academic freedom is much more doubtful.


Forgotten conflict

May 30, 2010

When in discussion exactly a year ago today with a group from a variety of age groups, I pointed out that this day (May 30) was a significant date in history for an African politician called Ojukwu, and I asked if anyone knew who he was. Nobody was able to answer my question. If I had asked the same question in the late 1960s, the chances are that most people would have known, because between 1967 and 1970 General Ojukwu led the secessionist Republic of Biafra, taking up the post on May 30, 1967.

The struggle between Biafra and Nigeria, from which it had broken away, was one that shocked and scandalised many from my generation at the time. Whatever the rights and wrongs may have been of the political differences in Nigeria that sparked the breakaway and the subsequent civil war, the hardship that resulted for the people of Biafra was terrible. The Nigerians were supported by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union (in a rare joint effort). The conflict ended with the defeat of Biafra and exile for Ojukwu in 1970 (though he later returned, indeed standing for President of Nigeria in recent elections).

Nigeria still has major problems, and while the Biafra conflict may have ended 40 years ago, we should still know about it and learn its lessons, particularly as regards the role played by European powers. Maybe it is time for people to brush up on this very tragic part of recent African history.

… and that’s how the Eurovision contest went

May 30, 2010

I really do hate to say this (truly), but I told you so. There just was no way that Ireland’s entry could have succeeded in the Eurovision Song Contest, and indeed it didn’t. In fairness, Niamh Kavanagh gave it her very best shot, but the song was all wrong.

People (including someone commenting in this blog) had been telling me how Germany would do well, and they did. But did I like the song? No, not at all. Lena should have been singing in German, and in any case it wasn’t exactly great music. I couldn’t quite work out the voting dynamics, but probably she benefited from all those countries wanting to be bailed out by Germany right now.

I thought Graham Norton (commenting on the BBC, presumably with instructions not to let us pine for Terry Wogan) had it about right: talk over everything. Much more fun that way.

Urban symbols – Photo #4 of 2010

May 29, 2010

This is the (relatively) new Samuel Beckett Bridge over the River Liffey in Dublin. Shaped like a harp, I think it is a structure of great beauty.

PRTLI wars

May 29, 2010

In yesterday’s Irish Times we read that the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) is in trouble. There may be readers here who are not fully aware of what PRTLI is, so here’s a short explanation. In the 1990s the philanthropist Chuck Feeney persuaded the government to join him in funding a new high value research programme for Irish universities, aimed at turning what were then somewhat unambitious and under-equipped institutions into real contenders in global research. It is no exaggeration to say that PRTLI transformed the Irish university sector. It provided state of the art laboratories and facilities, and allowed individual colleges to assemble high powered research teams. It created the setting in which the state and its agencies could credibly argue that Ireland was developing a knowledge economy that would be an appropriate host for companies wishing to develop an R&D presence in Europe. It can be said that much of today’s foreign direct investment in Ireland is made possible by the changes brought about through PRTLI.

Despite the clear value to Ireland of the PRTLI programme, it has had several near-death experiences. In 2002, when there was a budget blip, the government ‘paused’ PRTLI – meaning that it stopped new PRTLI proposals and preparations for the next phase of the programme (Cycle 4). The effect of this was devastating, as word spread internationally that Ireland had shown its lack of commitment to high value R&D. A little later PRTLI was reinstated, and in 2006 was given stronger government support by its inclusion in the very significant funding programme under the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI). By about 2008 the government had recovered its credibility as regards research in the global business community, particularly be re-confirming its support for PRTLI at a time of significant budgetary pressures.

So it is at this point that again we hear that PRTLI is in trouble. This time the main problem is that, after the cabinet reshuffle and shifting of responsibility for PRTLI from the Department of Education to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, a ‘turf war’ has broken out between the departments and agencies as to how PRTLI should be run, thereby delaying the announcement of the next cycle. Alongside that, according to the Irish Times article, there is some scepticism about the capacity for PRTLI funds to create jobs. It is maybe worth saying again that asking about the number of jobs created by research funding is naive: the key objective in developing university research is not to create jobs directly, but rather to establish an environment that will attract high value investment.

It has to be said that several government ministers (including the Taoiseach) have a very good record on research funding. However, all of this funding is for nothing unless there is strong consistency. The PRTLI tap cannot be turned on and off without causing severe damage to Ireland’s inward investment efforts. And even in these hard times – maybe particularly in them – we need to show strength of purpose in wanting to be amongst the global research leaders. Losing the research advantage because agencies or departments are squabbling would be ludicrous. I understand that the results of PRTLI cycle 5 were recommended to the government a few months ago. They must now be announced without delay, before irreversible damage is done to Ireland’s research reputation internationally. The time is now!

Eurovision hopes?

May 28, 2010

If you’re into the Eurovision thing – and who isn’t, at least secretly – then you’ll know that Ireland’s entry has made it into the finals. It’s by Niamh Kavanagh, and I think it’s called ‘It’s for you’. Actually I’m late into the game this year, having been rather busy recently, and it’s only courtesy of Youtube this morning that I have heard it at all. Well to be  honest, at first I heard the wrong thing, having searched for Niamh and found what I thought was the song, only to think that it sounded surprisingly familiar until I realised it was her 1993 winner, ‘In your eyes’. I then listened to this year’s song, and my expert opinion is that the two are exactly the same, with only Niamh looking slightly older (but rather good).

Irish media coverage of all this has been rather breathless, with confident statements that this year we’re in with a chance. Apparently Niamh’s song is well regarded and hotly tipped. Really? I’d have said that it has every chance of winning, but in 1993, not 2010. Nowadays you need three things to win: (i) an outrageous stage act; (ii) a cod glam rock style of song; and (iii) geo-political affiliations, preferably in the Balkans. And what do we have? A rather nice song with a restrained style and big orchestra backing. I’d say that has as much chance of winning the Eurovision as Anglo-Irish Bank has of winning the prestigious ‘Global Bank of the Year’ award.

Anyway, all this talk of winning misses the point of the Eurovision. You really, really don’t watch that because you expect to like any of the songs. Let’s face it, they’re all absolute rubbish. You watch it because once a year you have to let go of your pretensions to taste and style, and just enjoy the spectacle of utter kitsch, absurd songs, ludicrous presenters, political calculations and blatant miscarriages of justice in the voting. This is the best most awful show in the world. For heaven’s sake don’t spoil it by taking it seriously.

Tuition fees and universal benefits

May 28, 2010

Kevin Denny’s study on the impact of the ‘free fees’ scheme has sparked a lively discussion on the ‘Irish Economy’ website. One of the participants in the discussion is Labour Party TD Joanna Tuffy, and one of the points she makes there is the following:

‘My purpose in taking part in this discussion is not to stifle debate, nor political expediency. Labour passionately believes in the right to universal education at primary, second and third level and it is something that Labour has stood for right back to when its founder James Connolly called for free education up to the highest university grades back in 1896.’

At the heart of the Labour Party argument (when it’s not about shy taxi drivers) is the view that third level education should be treated as a universal benefit – i.e. a benefit that should be made available to the entire population. It is worth asking whether higher education is best provided as a universal benefit, but actually we could usefully ask how effective universal benefits are nowadays in a wider setting (a topic I have covered before).

The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.

Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.

The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.

As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.

It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.

Higher education is an extremely expensive service to provide, and in a developed knowledge economy it is probably beyond the taxpayer to fund it without a very significant targeted increase in taxation. Attempting to provide it free at the point of use without significant additional resources will result in a lower quality education system; but more than that, the very significant resources being provided to those who have the personal means to pay for it themselves compromise the state’s capacity to target the disadvantaged more effectively, as the money simply isn’t there (the wealthy have it). And it is this that has resulted in the lowest socio-economic groups still remaining largely excluded from higher education. Furthermore, it is also possible to address the needs of middle income groups without throwing money at the rich.

Joanna Tuffy, in her contribution to the debate on the ‘Irish Economy’ website quoted above, suggested that James Connolly’s call for free universal education ‘up to the highest university grades’ in 1896 is still relevant today. It isn’t. Back then fewer than 2 per cent of the Irish population participated in higher education, while today it is over 60 per cent. Back then it needed a revolution in educational practice across all of society, while today we need a targeted approach to secure inclusion for the most disadvantaged. You cannot look to 1896 to find an appropriate education policy for today, any more than you could find the right approach to broadband delivery in policies developed back then. These are wholly different times with quite different needs.

It needs to be understood by politicians pressing the ‘free fees’ case that this case is no longer a politically progressive one. One would like to think that those arguing against tuition fees are not influenced by the undoubted fact that reintroducing them will annoy middle class voters, but that they are doing it out of genuine if misguided motives. If that is so, they should now reconsider.

The complexity of academic freedom

May 27, 2010

As pretty much all the world knows, Ireland has recently experienced a major debate about the meaning of academic freedom. The particular context was the claim by University College Cork lecturer Dylan Evans that the university’s decision to discipline him for showing an academic paper on fellatio by fruit bats to a colleagues who had been made to feel uncomfortable by the encounter was an assault on his academic freedom. This is how Dr Evans set out the argument in writing to UCC’s management:

‘There are broader issues of academic freedom at stake here.  If we cannot discuss scientific articles about topics directly related to our own research, published in leading peer-reviewed international journals, with colleagues in the same department, this bodes very ill for informed enquiry and debate.’

As it happens, Ireland is one of the few countries that actually has a statutory definition of academic freedom, in section 14 of the Universities Act 1997:

‘A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.’

Academic freedom so understood is there to ensure that academics can develop ideas or argue against the ideas of others without having to fear that they will be penalised for doing so. Academic freedom as defined in other jurisdictions (in particular Germany and the United States) has sometimes tended to focus more on the right of the institution to determine its own curriculum and to decide on the admission of students. But what all these have in common is that ideas should be protected, even if they are unwelcome.

But while it may seem easy to map out the terrain in which academic freedom operates, it can raise complex problems in practice. If we accept that an academic may hold, develop and disseminate unorthodox or controversial views, does this right refer only to views that we might regard as ‘expert’ views, i.e. related to his or her expertise or discipline, or does it have a broader remit? If my field is organic chemistry, are my views on corporate banking protected by academic freedom? If they are, why should my views on this be given greater standing than the views of non-academic members of the public? If they are not, how can it be right that my views receive no special protection, while the identical views of my colleague in the economics department do? And if my views are covered by academic freedom, does this mean (as Dr Evans contended) that he has a right to express these to someone who doesn’t want to hear them? Or put another way, does every person have a legal obligation to listen without protest to views delivered by an academic? To give an extreme example, does my academic freedom oblige all persons at a dinner party with me to be quiet as I expound my views? Are they behaving illegally if they object?

There is also another setting in which academic freedom is sometimes invoked. If an academic wishes to criticise his or her institution, or a policy or position adopted by it, is this part of academic freedom? Similarly, have I the right to publish my criticisms of my university to a wider audience under the general heading of academic freedom? If I have, does this apply if what I say is untrue? Or what would be the position if what I say is untrue and it inflicts damage on my institution? A recent decision by the United States Supreme Court, Garcetti v. Ceballos, though admittedly not dealing with a university issue, is thought by some to have placed restrictions on the legal protection that may be claimed by academics who want to criticise their institution. However, the right to be critical, particularly where the debate concerns the academic principles of the university, should not be dismissed too lightly.

However we may answer all or any of these questions, it is clear that academic freedom is at the heart of a university system for a democratic society. The free and unhindered flow of ideas is vital for any such society, and those who develop ideas, even where they are controversial or unwelcome (provided they are within the law), need to be protected. But we also need to avoid the suspicion that academic freedom is a claim by academics not to be accountable for what we say and do. A good start to getting this right and securing public confidence is not to apply the concept of academic freedom to situations where it does not belong, and Dr Evans’ fruit bat saga is one of these.

Educational markets

May 26, 2010

If you are following what the new British coalition government is announcing, particularly with regard to education, you might want to have a look at this article in yesterday’s Guardian by Estelle Morris. Ms Morris (actually now Baroness Morris of Yardley) was herself Education Secretary for a while in Tony Blair’s government;  in 2002 she resigned, having rather disarmingly said she did not feel up to the job – I have always had a soft spot for her since then, as such honesty and modesty is not a common political trait. She also has a university background, as she subsequently was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland.

The main theme of her Guardian article is the ‘marketisation’ of education, and in particular the extent to which this is at the heart of the new government’s policies. The question of course has to be that if education is to be in a ‘market’, then what are the key ingredients of that market: i.e. what is being sold, and who are the purchasers and vendors, and what are the factors influencing supply and demand? If the ‘commodity’ is education, then you are only going to have a free market if all education is private and if quality is reflected in price, so that wealthier people can afford to buy the best education, and poorer people buy a lower quality version or maybe end up not being able to afford it at all. But in reality nobody wants a market quite like that, and anyone advocating it wouldn’t fare too well politically. So instead the ‘market’ concept has revolved around something much more limited, which is the competition between schools for students, or really for parents. At the heart of this is the belief that you need to inject ambition into educational establishments, and that this will only materialise if they have some discretion as to which students they will select.

Markets are an important and generally effective device for distributing goods and resources and services, but education is not particularly suited to this kind of approach. Education determines all sorts of social, economic and cultural issues in society, and a modern country needs to ensure that quality in education does not particularly follow privilege and wealth. A political imperative must be to raise educational standards at the lowest social level; but a market will depend significantly on a strong differentiation in quality between the best and the worst.

It seems to me to be right that schools should be free to be creative and entrepreneurial, and they should not be bureaucratised and controlled. Equally there needs to be transparency as to quality and performance, so that league tables ought to be beneficial. But allowing schools and parents to build up a class-based educational system is not one of the things we should tolerate. It is, I think, too early to see what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have in mind, but we should watch this space with some interest.

Professors everywhere!

May 26, 2010

Those who have been reading this blog for a while and and who are still persevering may recall that, just over a year ago, we discussed the question of whether the title ‘professor’ should be reserved for very senior academics with a world class research record only, or whether it should be the title given to all academics. In the American system, for example, pretty well all academics are ‘professors’, but the more junior ones are ‘assistant’ or ‘associate’ professors.

However, in Australia this appears to have been taken even further. According to a recent report, some Australian universities are now conferring the title of professor on senior university administrators. One university representative is quoted as saying that the title is being given to senior university officers ‘to denote management seniority and authority’. As readers of this blog know, I do have considerable respect for university administrators, who often have a very thankless job and who get very little recognition. But the whole point of the title of professor is to recognise scholarly achievement.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m wrong. In fact, maybe we need to go further. As we continue to cut resources for higher education and thus call into question quality and standards – and so the idea of the knowledge society – perhaps we can overcome the visible effects simply by giving everyone in the country the rank of professor. It would show a pleasing level of national status consciousness and erudition, and would allow us at the same time to increase civility and courteousness as people get used to addressing each other in this way. And the ultimate penalty for wrongdoing could be the withdrawal of the title, which would be much more effective than a prison sentence. I think this idea has great potential.