Archive for February 2014

City sights

February 28, 2014

This is really a photograph of the back of an Aberdeen street. It was taken earlier this week from Union Terrace. The trees in the foreground are in Union Terrace Gardens (the subject of much dispute and debate in Aberdeen), and beyond them you see the backs of various buildings located in the pedestrianised Belmont Street. This street was in fact a later addition to the original city, and contains a number of impressive historic buildings and churches. On the left of this photo is the back of the original Trades Hall, now an arts cinema. The church to the right is now (as are many former churches in Aberdeen) a nightclub.

Aberdeen: the view from Union Terrace

Aberdeen: the view from Union Terrace

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Is there a STEM crisis in these islands?

February 26, 2014

Quacquarelli Symonds have published the QS world university subject rankings. One particular aspect of these tables has been noted in both the UK and Ireland: that while universities in these islands do well in the arts and humanities and social sciences, they significantly under-perform in science, engineering and mathematics. This must raise serious questions about the capacity of our countries to remain innovation hubs in the next wave of economic development. It raises questions about resourcing and funding, as well as questions about career planning and guidance in the education sector.

It is an urgent task for policy-makers, funders and for universities themselves to look at how our record for achievement in science, engineering and mathematics can be secured for the future. It is of course also true that excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences is needed, but the portfolio of excellence must be balanced across the whole range of academic disciplines.

The right to offend?

February 25, 2014

Every so often in this blog – indeed about once a year – I am driven to write about freedom of speech. Free speech is one of the building blocks of real intellectual endeavour; without it scholarship has no integrity.

Every so often some academic will test this and will make it harder for the rest of us to stay true to our principles. Last year for example I referred to the extraordinary suggestion by a professor from the University of Rochester that the rape of an unconscious woman produced ‘no direct physical harm’ and therefore perhaps nothing to interest the law.

This year it’s a professor from Loyola University in New Orleans. Professor Walter Bock, a libertarian economist and (for those who may understand the significance of the name) a member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, delivered himself of various comments not exactly in tune with modern principles of equality and diversity. Slavery, he suggested, was flawed because a slave’s status was not voluntary, but ‘otherwise … wasn’t so bad’. He also declared that shops should be allowed to refuse to serve black customers because ‘no one is compelled to associate with people against their will.’

Not unexpectedly his colleagues, or many of them, have not been very supportive. with the University’s President publicly criticising Professor Bock, and with a number of academics signing a letter condemning his statements.

Personally I would not hesitate to say that Professor Bock’s comments are outrageous, and I hope that no-one will be persuaded by them. But should he be censured, or indeed should university processes be used to compel him to desist from making them again? That I find more difficult. In fact, I am in a small way disappointed by the actions of the 17 faculty members who signed the letter.

What Professor Bock said was offensive. But part of the objectives of the academy must be to nurture debate, and to protect the right of those who wish to make critical comments. We cannot restrict that protection to those with whom we are inclined to agree, nor can we draw some arbitrary line beyond which those exercising their right to free speech may not go. Universities of all places must accept the value of free speech, with as few restrictions as possible. Bad taste, bad politics, bad moral perspectives even, should not invalidate the right. And those who find someone’s speech to be offensive should engage them in argument, not subject them to censorship. That should be our mission.

Glasgow’s absentee Rector

February 20, 2014

I wrote this post for the website The Conversation, and it was first published on that site

Students at the University of Glasgow have just elected their 127th rector, Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower. It seems fairly unlikely that Snowden will participate in the university’s governance or in the task of representing students. Then again, his election has brought global attention well beyond what his very respectable predecessor, former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, was ever able to secure. He is the first American to fill this position, but he will almost certainly not be expecting a message of congratulations from the US government.

Glasgow University’s students have form. On previous occasions they have elected other people who were unable to travel to Glasgow, including South African activists Winnie Mandela and Albert Lutuli, and Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. But the Glasgow rectorship is not just a haven for international dissidents. It is worth pointing out that students have more generally elected pillars of the establishment such as Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham), BBC Director General Lord Reith, and the afore-mentioned Charles Kennedy.

So what is this all about? Is the role of rector so unimportant that anyone, no matter how absent from duties they are likely to be, is a good choice? Maybe the importance of the role lies somewhere else. Glasgow University graduate and prominent broadcast journalist Andrew Neil tweeted: “Whistleblower Edward Snowden has been elected as rector of Glasgow University following a student vote. My alma mater.” He then added: “Sometimes you need a working rector. Sometimes you need to make a statement.”

What exactly is the role of a rector in the Scottish university stem? Although in both Glasgow and Aberdeen there had been rectors prior to this, the office was given a formal legal status by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858, which described the rector as “the ordinary president of the university”. In 1889, further legislation provided for their election by students, or in the case of the University of Edinburgh, by staff and students. The legislation applied (and still applies) to all universities in existence at the time: St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Subsequently the position of rector was also established in the University of Dundee. Other Scottish universities do not have a rector. Except in the case of Dundee, the rector is entitled to chair governing body meetings, but generally does not do so.

The original intention behind establishing the office of rector was to secure some level of student and lay, or non-academic, participation in the running of universities. Today that original purpose may seem less urgent. Students have since been given direct representation on university governing bodies, and lay members are now usually in the majority on these bodies. Perhaps partly because of that, students started to elect what could be described as vanity candidates. They were chosen because of their celebrity status, or as political figures who were in no position to play any active role. To avoid this trend, a Rector’s Charter was drawn up in 2007, which commits rectors to performing their function for a specified number of days every month, to be available to students and to attend the vast majority of governing body meetings.

In the light of Snowden’s election, how should we evaluate the office? Does it still serve a purpose? When I chaired the review of higher education governance in Scotland in 2011, we asked all the universities to provide us with views on the role and its usefulness. Those universities that had rectors, including Glasgow, suggested that the role should continue. All those that didn’t have one indicated they didn’t want one. And so the system has remained as it was.

To those who sometimes bemoan the apparent disengagement by students from the global political concerns of the day, a high profile and energetically conducted campaign to recognise a controversial political figure may seem like a refreshing return to the days of student campaigns for something other than cheaper catering. On the other hand, to those who want to see an effective mechanism for representing student interests, a rector who is confined to some unidentified place in Russia may not seem best placed to deliver the goods.

In the end the rector will be, or not be, whatever students want. Those universities that have rectors will probably continue to find that each term of office has the capacity to be very different.

Snowden will not be holding the management of the University of Glasgow to account. To some, his association with the university will be an embarrassment. But every generation of students must have a right to make a statement in some way they regard as appropriate. Whether the rest of us really approve is, I suspect, not the most important consideration.

Student engagement: a tale of two campuses

February 18, 2014

I had occasion to visit two universities over the last two weeks or so. The first I am going to leave nameless, but I went there to listen to a public lecture. The event was at 6 pm, and the speaker was very good indeed, and I was pleased to have gone. But the audience for this was very small. There were perhaps 15 people in all, and as far as I could tell, none of them were students; indeed I’m not sure there were many staff either. Outside the venue the campus was eerily quiet; everyone had gone home.

Then last Friday I was a panelist at a student-organised event in Trinity College Dublin – the Trinity Economic Forum. The discussion in which I participated was about higher education policy, and the packed lecture theatre must have contained about 200 people. It was at 6.45 pm on a Friday night. Not only were the students there in number, they also participated actively.

The university experience is of course changing all the time. New demographic trends and new technology – to name just two factors – are making a difference to how students interact with the university, with their teachers and with each other. But I still believe that the experience of active engagement, both with people and with topics, as part of the learning process but outside its timetabled elements is a vital element of higher education. It is something we lose at our peril. We must all embrace change, but we must hold on to the goal of student engagement in whatever educational experience we aim for in the future.

Stuart Hall RIP

February 17, 2014

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee

This is an educated guess, but I bet that many among the readers of this blog have heard of Professor Stuart Hall, who died on  February 10, aged 82. A giant of cultural theory and sociology, former Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, Professor of Sociology at the Open University (1979 – 1997), Stuart’s influence has spread well beyond national and disciplinary boundaries, from film to media, from cultural history to politics, from literature to sociology.

My personal memories of Stuart Hall date back to the 1980s, when as an undergraduate student in the Department of English Literature at the Orientale University in Naples I sat in one of his seminars. Stuart Hall personally knew most of the staff working in English at the Orientale at the time, since they had spent study periods in Birmingham, and he enjoyed coming to Naples for seminars and lectures. With the enthusiasm of my 20s I remember asking quite a few questions (perhaps too many and not all good ones!) but he answered them with his distinctive kindness and grace. Reading the many obituaries in the press, the online tribute page, or viewing The Stuart Hall Project documentary, one cannot but note a common denominator: Stuart was not only an excellent scholar and communicator, but he knew how to listen and how to inspire young scholars.

Often on this forum, prompted by its author, we debate key aspects of academic life, we argue, bitterly sometimes, and we learn (personally quite a lot) from each other’s insight. Occasionally though we come across examples of academic practice that are true to the meaning of the most abused word in today’s academia: excellence. Stuart Hall is one such examples; no matter whether one agreed with his political stance or not (and he was a committed public intellectual in the best Gramscian tradition), Stuart was inspiring, he was a star researcher (to use today’s terminology), and yet he loved teaching.

Curiously he never wrote a book: he preferred the form of the article (not something that a contemporary promotion committee would consider positively). Together with Richard Hoggart, the other ‘father’ of Cultural Studies and also a visitor to the Orientale in those years, no one else had more of an impact on how I think, teach, and write. Any undergraduate student should have the privilege to come across such an inspirational scholar. So when we think about academia and its contested future, of the many challenges ahead, of the impact of new technologies, and so forth, we might like to pause and reflect upon the core pedagogical values our institutions are going to be based on in years to come. To fully appreciate what such values are we need to look no further than at Stuart Hall’s exemplary life.

Can anyone still write?

February 10, 2014

A little while ago I received a letter from a manager in a large multinational company. He enclosed an extract from a report which had been written for him by one of his staff, whom he supposed – wrongly as it happens – to have been one of my students a few years ago. This extract ended as follows.

‘In regards to the incident, we mustn’t presume. I have put together some further thots in an appendice, and you can look at at your lesure. Their’s douts of what really hapened and who’s fault it is.’

My correspondent’s purpose was to suggest that I, or certainly the system of which I was a part, had failed to educate this man appropriately and to ensure that he had writing skills that made it safe for him to be released into the community. The implication was that this person’s ineptitude with the written word was representative of his generation, as my supposed inability to teach the relevant skills was representative of mine.

In fact the internet is full of alleged examples of bad student writing, and the suggestion that they cannot handle metaphors and similes in particular is a recurring theme – even if the rather amusing examples regularly given are almost certainly not genuine. The suggestion is often made that the school system has failed an entire generation of young people by neglecting to educate them in basic writing skills; and this seems to be a worldwide problem.

Of course some complaints are offered by pedants who find the idea of a living, changing language repulsive and who will go on endlessly about split infinitives and the like. But on the other hand, it is true that we can all receive letters, emails and reports that disclose an extraordinary lack of very basic skills of spelling, grammar and syntax. I cannot tell whether these educational failures that blighted the last generation have been addressed for the one that followed; but if not, then something will need to be done, and if universities cannot themselves fix the problem, they can make a noise about its significance.