Archive for July 2011

A world in isolation, or a world networked?

July 31, 2011

While waiting in Newark airport for my flight back to Europe, I got into conversation with two academics from Europe (one from Germany, the other from England) who had both attended a conference in New York. It was part of a regular series of conferences in their subject area, and they usually take place in the United States. Until about five years ago roughly a third of those attending would be from outside America.

This year, they told me, the non-US attendance was less than 10 per cent, and they themselves were unlikely to come again. This, they explained, was not because the conference had no value, but because it was becoming unaffordable, because they were under pressure not to increase their carbon footprint, and because informal access to people was now so easy online that a physical presence at a conference was seen by some of those holding travel budgets to be superfluous.

Is this a trend we should want to encourage? Is the era of scholarly networking in each other’s presence now at an end? Does it matter, in the new online world?

For myself, I am an enthusiast for the advantages of the internet, but I shall be very disappointed if the concept of the international academic encounter is now a thing of the past. I think something would be lost.


Not having a party

July 31, 2011

It’s nearly three years since Barack Obama won the US presidential election. To many people outside America, this marked what people assumed would be the return of ‘normal’ politics to America. For non-Americans it had been almost impossible to understand George W. Bush and his retinue; they seemed to be driven by various impulses that, for them, signified US influence and leadership, but which to the rest of the world appeared to be somewhere between zany and dangerous. The Bush administration took on almost unimaginable costs, ranging from the various wars to massive (and unfunded) tax cuts.

Oddly enough, right now US politics are convulsed by two outputs from the Bush era: the amazing deficit that his policies bequeathed the American people, and the ‘Tea Party‘ movement that is a spin-off of sorts from his ideological positions. This dual legacy is so odd in part because the Tea Party are treating the deficit as an Obama creation, which it actually is not. As the graph in this article shows, overwhelmingly the over-spending is a creature of the Bush government, whereas Obama has been relatively frugal; indeed Obama’s main expenditure relates to issues (or wars) that were put in play by Bush.

If you visit America, as I have been doing these past few days, you get a very direct sense of how US politics are now anything but normal. The debate here about raising the debt ceiling is so totally irrational as to have mind-bending attributes. A solution to the by now somewhat real threat that America could default on its financial obligations (though probably not its loans) is held in abeyance by driven ideologues who, when you listen to them being interviewed, clearly do not have an even basic understanding of the economic issues involved. They share the Republican Party with an established leadership that is increasingly aghast at their antics. On the other side is a president who may not be acting as decisively as the situation requires. As the outcome of this drama will affect us all, it has rather chilling properties.

The United States is, and notwithstanding occasional exaggerated predictions about the growth of the BRIC countries will continue to be, the leader and trend-setter of the global economy. This makes it rather important that its economic policies are the subject of rational debate and decision-making, guided by informed analysis. The current battles being fought on Capitol Hill won’t do. It is time to stop humouring the Tea Party ideologues, and to stop pretending that their arguments merit real debate. There are perfectly legitimate differing positions on the economic crisis, but they need to be based on an understanding of the issues. It is time for America to end the ‘tea party’ and to let the adults take over.

Online worlds

July 30, 2011

I recently attend a dinner party at which there was a lively debate about the online experience offered by social networking sites. The overwhelming majority view of those present (average age probably around 58) was that the internet was destroying the traditional concept of a ‘community’ by persuading social networkers that what they were experiencing represented genuine social interaction. It was however not, one person present suggested, a real experience st all: virtual networking was at best a fantasy. A real network needed real human interaction, real meetings, the touch of another human, and people looking into each others’ eyes.

Well, yesterday and today I have been in Los Angeles attending Vidcon, which describes itself as a ‘yearly conference for people who like video’. In fairness, that doesn’t describe it at all. It is a conference for those who reach out to the world on youtube, who broadcast themselves or who ‘follow’ others who do so. There are probably some 4,000 or so people attending the event. I am here to accompany my son, who is an enthusiastic fan of several youtube broadcasters.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I have found can best be described as a very lively and very real community. Many of these people have never met ‘in the flesh’ before, but they relate to each other instantly and know each other almost intimately. The opportunity to meet probably adds something, but it isn’t what has established the spirit of community: that derives specifically from the online element.

Maybe we just need to reconsider what constitutes ‘community’. In fact, through email and the web and social networking I know people all over the world, and often feel that they are part of that more intimate circle we regard as genuine friends. So on the whole it is my view that the internet, far from destroying the concept of a community, has enhanced it. If it shut down tomorrow, I would feel a great sense of personal loss.

So I feel that we should stop worrying about all the nasty things we fear the internet is doing socially; instead we should embrace it.

Science not yet ready for women?

July 29, 2011

In early 2010 the Royal Institution, the body that raises awareness of science and promotes its research in the United Kingdom, decided to make its director redundant, almost without giving her any notice. The director in question was Susan Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield), and when the decision was announced the suspicion in many people’s minds was that the move may have been connected with her gender and the public profile she had (to the great benefit of science, it would have to be said) managed to acquire.

The general suspicion that science is not quite ready for women continues. Research undertaken by the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology (UKRC) has suggested that women are put off science, and that the image of those women who do make it there tends to be heavily influenced by stereotypical assumptions and prejudices.

A modern society cannot afford to harbour such views and prejudices. It is time to ensure that woman have an equal role and place in the world of science.

Graduate studies, economic revival and doing the wrong thing

July 29, 2011

This blog post is coming to you from California. This is a state that has a good few problems, including serious public funding issues. However, there is a widespread consensus that universities will need to continue to build up their programmes of postgraduate studies, both taught and by research. Silicon Valley in particular mops up people with postgraduate qualifications, and economic problems notwithstanding, demand is increasing.

In Britain on the other hand the various postgraduate funding bodies are, according to information obtained by the Labour Party, dramatically cutting funded numbers doing both Masters and PhD programmes, in some cases by 30 per cent and more. Given the needs of the economy and society more generally, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is in fact likely that over the coming decade or two universities in developed countries will tend to re-balance their portfolios somewhat in favour of postgraduate courses and research, a trend that Britain may not be able to follow to the extent that it should.

This development will probably reinforce the concern felt by some that the UK government does not have a fully worked out strategy on higher education, and that too many measures appear to have budgetary rather than educational reasons. As industrial investment and new start-ups are increasingly knowledge-intensive in nature, this must be reflected in the strategic development of higher education. That link is not sufficiently in evidence right now.

In Ireland there may also be a problem regarding graduate research funding, and here too it will be vital that postgraduate studies continue to grow, and that the major research centres are able to fund PhD students.

Turning music into pulp

July 28, 2011

I really love music. Truly. I swear. Yet these days when I hear music, and almost any music, I often want to scream. Music is everywhere, coming from loudspeakers in the department store, in the hotel lobby, in the restaurant, on the street, in airplanes, in lifts (elevators). And you cannot hope to go to any kind of more upmarket reception without finding a string quartet, or harpist, or someone with an acoustic guitar.

What is wrong with this? What is wrong is that this is not music for anyone’s enjoyment. Nobody stops to listen. It is pure background noise. The composer and the performer are not celebrated, they are humiliated. The harpist plays, but has no hope of being heard above the noise of conversation. The PA system belts out a song by some 1970s band but if you asked a passer-by whether they had even noticed it was being played, the answer would probably be no.

Music needs to be appreciated, enjoyed, understood, celebrated. Instead it is destroyed. So let us have it where it is listened to, and for heaven’s sake turn it off where it is just there to cover up the silence – the silence we appear to fear so much.

Assessing the value of education

July 27, 2011

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a young student currently studying at an English university. Two years away from completing his undergraduate studies, he told me that he intended to travel the world and then settle down to a job that would have to pay less than £21,000 – permanently. He did not wish ever to cross the salary threshold at which he would have to repay his student loans. And why? Because once he allowed himself to be sucked into the game ‘in which my salary would have to chase my debts’ he would be in ‘negative educational equity’. He had no intention of going there.

While there may not be too many people planning their careers quite like this, the student’s assessment is not wholly out of line with what some commentators are saying, particularly in the United States. In a recent blog post Professor Mark J. Perry of the University of Michigan looked at the relative rates of inflation of property prices, consumer prices and higher education tuition fees in the United States. He found that since 1980 tuition fees had risen more than twice as fast as house prices. And yet, the inflation in real estate, as we know, created the property bubble and its horrendous economic effects. The question  he asks is whether the ‘education bubble’ is also about to hurst, creating a fresh set of very serious problems. This could happen where those in the education system are no longer convinced that the debts they take on in order to acquire a degree are greater than the financial benefits of being a graduate.

There are of course differences between the funding and costs of a university education in America and one on this side of the Atlantic; indeed in these islands the position varies between different countries. But as the costs rise – whether these are borne by the taxpayer or by the student or in some other way – some may ask whether there is an adequate repayment for the investment. Where this is asked more generally by society it can be answered in terms of the capacity of higher education to provide relevant skills and a civilising influence; where it is asked by individual fee-payers the answer sought is about the return on investment in terms of career development and salary.

If we slip into a situation where students walk away from higher education opportunities because they are not convinced they will provide an adequate return, then as a society we will be in trouble. If there is even a hint of a risk of this we need to look closely at our higher education strategy. The time to do that is now.

Migrating students – or not

July 27, 2011

If you want to have a completely irrational conversation that brings out another person’s prejudices in an almost hysterical way, then try talking about immigration with someone who has conservative inclinations and reads certain newspapers. If you want to push the boundaries a little, suggest to them that immigration is good for the economy and that it benefits society. As you continue the conversation, see them gradually lose their grip on reality.

For years now some politicians and some newspapers have been whipping up public indignation about migration, and as a result public discourse on the topic has become impossible, unless you believe that completely crazy discussions have some value. There are acres of studies on migration, its causes, its effects, its benefits and its risks, but in England in particular public opinion has become so unbalanced that politicians hardly even pretend now to base their decisions on evidence. Even those who one might suspect are in reality quite rational in their views appear to believe they must express thinly disguised xenophobic views in public.

Talk of this kind not only makes xenophobia and racism seem respectable, because those with deep prejudices find excuses apparently rooted in economics or welfare policy, it also pushes countries into decisions that are completely at odds with their own self-interest. Another example of this has been the decision by the Conservative-led coalition government in London to reduce the number of overseas students studying in the the United Kingdom. The Home Secretary’s own officials have estimated that this move will cost Britain some £3.6 billion. However, Ms Theresa May has decided that she does not believe this evidence, presumably thereby implying that she has no intention of changing the policy. In fact Ms May is not an irrational person, but she clearly believes that she must not allow the facts to cloud her policy, because she knows well enough what some of her party’s supporters, and some of her media backers, want.

The British approach to immigration is daft in a general way. But its impact on universities, which badly need the revenues from overseas students as well as the important benefits derived from an education open to multi-cultural influences, is horrendous. As the UK gets a reputation for hostility to foreign students – and this is already happening – it is jettisoning some of the most important values of a civilised education system, as well as some of the economic benefits.

Speaking from Scotland, I hope (as I have said before) that student migration becomes an issue for the Scottish parliament. The Westminster government has shown that it cannot handle it objectively.

Drug testing in the examination hall?

July 26, 2011

It’s early in the morning, and you are about to sit an examination. You didn’t sleep well last night. You are tired, and you honestly cannot remember much about your subject. You are nervous. To steady your nerves you drink a strong cup of coffee. Stop! re you taking a drug there that may enhance your powers? You’ll be disqualified.

Does that sound fanciful? Perhaps, but what if you took a neuro-enhacing smart drug, perhaps the cerebral equivalent of the sportsman’s steroids? Now are you cheating? Or a can of Red Bull?

A senior lecturer in Pharmacology in Trinity College Dublin, Dr Andrew Harkin, has according to a report in the Irish Independent suggested that this amounts to cheating. Clearly one would not want to encourage the use of drugs for any reason, including this one, and where such use is illegal it should have the consequences set out in the law. But is it ‘cheating’? Are examinations a competitive sport? Neither caffeine nor drugs upload information to your brain. You will only answer what you know.

I believe that the approach suggested byDr Harkin is misguided. Rather, we need to look again at the culture of cut-throat competition and the unnerving of students by the expectations of families, their peers and the wider society. Learning is important, but it should never be intimidating. We need to look again at the whole culture of higher education, and thereby make it less attractive for students to consider drugs. And I suspect they might sleep easier at night before the exams.

The RC Church in Ireland, coming out fighting: a wise strategy?

July 26, 2011

It has not been a good week for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The report prepared by a team led by Judge Yvonne Murphy on sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Cloyne was published, and it documents an astonishing tale of abuse, cruelty, neglect, cover-up, misrepresentation, failure of cooperation, and non-compliance not just with the law but with basic human decency. Of course the Cloyne report was not setting out some isolated incidents in the South of Ireland; from Judge Murphy’s previous report on the Dublin Archdiocese, from reports on other dioceses and from an ever-longer list of individual cases that began with disclosures in the mid-1990s about Fr Brendan Smyth’s abuse of over 100 victims, we know that there has been a terrible pattern of abuse that seems to have corrupted the church in almost every corner of the land. Of course not every priest was an abuser: most were not. But it is inconceivable that the culture of abuse and cover-up was not something that most would have been aware of, but none spoke up. It is hard to accept the point made by some defenders of the Roman Catholic church – that a small number of perverted men have brought shame on a generally good institution – because if it were a good institution, it would not have harboured this evil in its midst. There were too many abusers, and too many victims, for this to be seen as the successfully hidden wicked deeds of a tiny and unrecognised minority.

I strongly suspect that if this pattern of abuse had been revealed about any other organisation, that organisation would long before this have been wound up, either voluntarily or by order of the state. Though it must be so hard to bear for many good people of faith to see their church being exposed and then pilloried in this way, it is probably also hard for the victims and those shocked by what they have learned to understand why the organisation is allowed to continue, indeed to continue to have a special role in the care of the young.

Without doubt reflecting the public mood, the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny launched a strong attack on the church, and on its Vatican-based leadership in particular, in a speech in Dáil Éireann. This is an extract from his speech:

‘The report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict’s “ear of the heart”, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a Canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position is the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion on which the Roman Church was founded. Such radicalism, humility and compassion comprise the essence of its foundation and purpose. This behaviour is a case of Roma locuta est: causa finita est, except in this instance nothing could be further from the truth.’

The church, however, has not been entirely willing to accept this criticism. The Vatican, in a diplomatic step that signifies anger with the Irish government, has recalled the Papal Nuncio to Rome for consultations. Furthermore, writing in the Irish Times, the eminent Roman Catholic theologian Fr Vincent Twomey criticised the Taoiseach for his attack on the Vatican and suggested that the primary responsibility lay with the state. These steps and responses suggest that the church has not understood the position it is in. Indeed the only church leader to have consistently shown an appreciation of the awfulness of what was done and the responsibility to address it has been the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin.

It is difficult to know what should be done with, or to, the Roman Catholic Church. But if one were advising the church one would certainly not be suggesting to them that becoming prickly, or attempting to allocate blame elsewhere, is a clever strategy. Its loyal and faithful members have rights to be ministered to; were it not for that, it would not seem obvious to me why it should not be disbanded.

For those of faith – and I include myself in the number – this has been the most terrible of times. More still, for the victims it has been a time not just of torture and abuse, but then of having to live without vindication and without self-respect. That is an unbelievably awful gift to present to Christianity, and it has subverted and perverted the mission of the church and the teachings of its founder. It has all but destroyed whatever is good in the legacy.